Since the December 1991 implosion of the USSR, the Russian Federation, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have all seen an explosion in the development of their hydrocarbon resources.
For southern neighbour Turkey, this has meant an unwelcome congestion of tankers clogging the Bosporus and Dardanelles, the sole maritime egress from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and mounting Turkish concerns about safety there, as the two channels, known collectively as the Turkish Straits, are under Turkish sovereignty. The largest oil tankers able to pass through the Turkish Straits are the Suezmax-class tankers (120,000-200,000 dead weight tons).
But now Istanbul’s Directorate of Environment and Urbanization is reporting that the 2006 opening of the $3.6 billion, one million barrel per day (bpd), 1,092-mile Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which traverses 669 miles of Turkish territory to ship Azeri Caspian oil to Turkey’s deepwater Mediterranean Ceyhan port, has reduced tanker traffic in the Turkish Straits by more than 10 percent since it opened in 2006.
According to Directorate of Environment and Urbanization, the number of tankers passing through the Bosporus last year fell below 50,000 for the first time since 2006, with 49,798 ship passages.
But busy tankers still ferry roughly 2.4 million bpd of Russian, Kazakh and Azeri crude through the Turkish Straits to eager foreign consumers, roughly 2 ½ times the amount of crude carried by the BTC. Turkey’s hands are tied in regulating the traffic, as under the terms of the 1936 Montreux Convention, which ensured Turkish sovereignty over the waterway, Turkey is prohibited from even collecting tolls on merchantmen transiting the Straits; commercial vessels are not even required to engage the services of a pilot to navigate the tricky passage.
Turkey has significant reason to be concerned about the Bosporus and Dardanelles having been turned into a tanker motorway. The convoluted 19 mile-long Bosporus bisects Istanbul, a city of 12 million, and it is a notoriously difficult channel to navigate, which narrows in places to less than a mile. The Bosporus has a convoluted morphological structure that requires ships to change course at least twelve times during transit, including four separate bends that require turns greater than 45 degrees. At Kandilli, a blind 45 degree bend complicates navigation where the Bosporus narrows to less than a half-mile, and at both Kandilli and Yenikoy, forward and rear lines of sight are blocked during turns.
Adding to the complexities of the maritime slalom, two bridges built in 1973 and 1988 across the Bosporus increase the navigational threats and the lags of one of the two bridges are even grounded in the Bosporus, while construction of a third span is under consideration. Furthermore, along with the international shipping, approximately 1.5 million people cross the Bosporus daily on intercity ferries and shuttle boats, accounting for about 1,000 east-west crossings of the channel each day.
Even swimmers cross the passage. On 15 July more than 1,100 people including politicians, artists and professional athletes from 41 countries swam from “Asia to Europe” in the 24th annual Intercontinental Bosporus Race. Among those braving the waters were U.S. ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone along with 17 staff from the U.S. Embassy and former Olympic great Mark Spitz.
Municipal authorities have ample reasons to be concerned about the possibility of tanker accidents. On 14 March 1994, less than three years after the demise of the USSR, the 66,822-ton Cypriot tanker Nassia, laden with Russian Novorossiisk oil, collided with the Cypriot Ship Broker at the Black Sea entrance to the Bosporus. A massive conflagration ensued, killing 29 of the Nassia’s crew, while the vessel’s port and center tanks ruptured, spilling 19 million gallons of crude into the Bosporus. Both ships were total losses, the channel was closed to shipping for a week and the accident caused $1 billion in damage.
And BTC or additional proposed pipelines are hardly a risk-free environment for Turkey, as pipelines crossing Turkish territory remain vulnerable to attack by Marxist Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK) separatists, who have been battling the Turkish government since 1984.
In their most notable success, on 5 August 2008 the PKK attacked the BTC pipeline, closing it for 19 days.
For Ankara then, despite the good news from Istanbul, the answer is clear – more Turkish Straits bypass pipelines, preferably transiting the placid western Thracian region of the country.
For Turkey, it is a win-win situation – tanker traffic lessens while Turkey receives transit revenues. Naturally the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan would prefer to keep their toll-free maritime transit scheme, but when Ricciardone towels himself off, now might be the time for some judicious diplomacy.
Turkey is making a bid to host the 2020 Olympics in Istanbul. Let the games begin!
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com