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International energy flows — particularly oil — pass through a relatively small number of chokepoints and are highly vulnerable to disruption due to regional conflicts, terrorism, and piracy.

World oil supplies are not just threatened by political instability. The infrastructure required to move massive amounts of oil is both vast and highly vulnerable. There are three principle risks to oil transportation. First, much of the world’s oil transits through relatively constricted passages that can be closed to traffic by states and others with a desire to do so. Second, tankers travelling in large numbers along predictable routes are vulnerable to the rapidly growing threat of piracy. Third, oil pipelines, the major alternative to seaborne shipment of oil, are also susceptible to attack.

Existing waterway choke points are easy targets of terrorist attacks, have seen traffic disruptions by states in times of conflict, and continue to be hubs of piracy. The threat from state actors is severe. Over 50 countries possess significant inventories of anti-ship missiles.15 And in 2006, Lebanese Hezbollah used anti-ship missiles against Israeli vessels.16 Nearly twenty percent of the world’s oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz, a 21 mile-wide body of water vulnerable to Iranian anti-ship missiles.17 Nearly the same amount of oil transits the 1.7 mile-wide Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia.

In addition to this high-tech threat, there has been an increasing amount of piracy reported globally. Total attacks by pirates doubled from 2007 to 2008, and thus far in 2009 are on pace to double again.18 Remarkably, even the largest ships are vulnerable, as evidenced by the November 2008 seizure of the Sirius Star off the coast of Somalia. In this case, small bands of pirates seized control of a 350,000 ton, 1000 foot-long ship.19 Most of the attacks have occurred near three key sea lanes for oil tankers: off the Somali coast at the exit to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea; in proximity to the Strait of Malacca; and in the Caribbean where oil transits to the American Gulf Coast. With more than 2,600 tankers transporting oil globally, there is no shortage of attractive targets.20

There is no good alternative to moving oil by sea. Pipelines cannot cross oceans, and even those constructed to move oil from inland drilling sites to sea coasts for shipment are expensive to construct and maintain. Pipelines are also highly vulnerable. The Iraq Pipeline Watch, for instance, documented over 450 attacks on Iraqi pipelines and oil facilities from 2003 to 2008.21

The costs of safeguarding this oil infrastructure is massive. Some analysts believe that “total [U.S.] military expenditures related to oil now total $132.7 billion annually,”22 though other analysts place the figure closer to $50 billion annually.23 Regardless, the expense is a massive addition to the other costs — climate and security related — of oil dependence.

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