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Energy Security
The Persistence of Modern Piracy

Most talk about energy security tends to focus on the ability to meet demand with resilient supply. To that end, varied supply is preferable to a monolithic one, and domestic sources are generally preferable to foreign ones. The reasoning is simple: diversification spreads risks around, and domestic sources are generally less vulnerable to disruptive forces outside of one’s control. Supply disruptions can occur close to the source, as we’ve seen over the past year in Libya, which wasn’t able to bring its crude to marketwhen armed rebels controlled many of its major ports. But once loaded, energy flows, like liquified natural gas (LNG) and crude oil, are still vulnerable; piracy remains a real threat to the security of the global energy market.

That’s particularly true when maritime trading routes run through canals and straits, making the massive tankers vulnerable to criminals lying in wait. That’s particularly true in the Strait of Malacca, which lies along the shortest trade route between Asian ports and the Persian Gulf. In 2011, 15.2 million barrels of oil daily passed through the Strait (which is just 1.7 miles wide at its narrowest point), transported by more than 60,000 vessels. The Strait has a storied history of dealing with opportunistic pirates, but recently has seen a significant decrease in theft and hijackings. As the Wall Street Journal reports, however, some of these highly important trade routes are quite fragile:

The Naniwa Maru 1 was boarded by at least eight pirates, as it was headed north through the Strait early on Tuesday carrying 5.3 million liters of fuel en route to Myanmar, said Abdul Rahim Abdullah, deputy commander of Malaysia’s marine police.

The boarding party, which was armed with at least one pistol, grouped the 18 crew members in a room and robbed them of mobile phones and cash, while two other ships pulled alongside and drained the tanker for about eight hours, Mr. Abdul Rahim said. […]

Detailed technical knowledge of the ship and its operations would be required to keep the tanker and the ships to which it was off-loading at a constant speed and on the same course while the diesel was being pumped out, Mr. Abdul Rahim said.

China, South Korea, and Japan will all look on events like this one with considerable worry. They remind policymakers of the ever present need to bolster their energy security. That can be done by pursuing more domestic sources, as China is doing with its considerable shale reserves, or as Japan is attempting to do with the development of methane hydrate resources.

But energy security aims can also be accomplished through diversification, and to that end, the United States can have a pivotal role to play. America is slowly opening up its domestic glut of shale gas to the global market, and with the premiums Asian buyers are paying these days for LNG, much of that supply will be headed Asia’s way. Supply disruptions are much, much less likely on trade routes traveling from the United States across the Pacific toward Asia, because such routes are unconstrained by bottlenecks, the way Persian hydrocarbon routes are. Exporting American LNG won’t just be a boon to the American economy (though studies suggest that this will be that, too), it will strengthen international energy security, and that’s good news for everyone.

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  • Anthony

    Another example of importance of U.S. Naval umbrella waterways protection for global commerce – though other (regional) capable navies need to enjoin.

    • D. Adair

      In a sence it would be well to consider the concept that ” He who rules the seas rules the world”.

      • Anthony

        That’s been generally correct since 15th century but now factor in air space.

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