oil rig

Maritime Threats to Worldwide Oil Distribution

According to the International Maritime Organization, 90 percent of global trade occurs by the sea and is the most efficient and affordable means of transporting goods and materials, including energy sources such as coal, oil, and natural gas. To effectively transport valuable energy sources across the globe, ocean shipping lanes are located strategically; however, at times, they can also be in unsecured areas. The rise of maritime threats has made the shipping of these materials, particularly oil, a growing concern for nations in the 21st century.

Today oil tankers distribute more than 66 percent of all oil produced along one of a few major shipping lanes, including the:

  • Strait of Hormuz—Links the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean and other global oil markets
  • Suez Canal—Reduces the cost of oil to Europe by using the Mediterranean Sea instead of the Atlantic Ocean
  • Straits of Dover—Connects British oil production to refineries in Northern Europe
  • Panama Canal—Gives easy access to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans

Any disruption to an oil shipment along the shipping lanes, no matter how minor it may seem, could be devastating for global economies, especially in countries that do not have large strategic reserves.

The Threats

Threats to oil tankers may come from nation-states or individual actors and can range from military action to terrorism to pirates.


When the price of oil was over $100 a barrel during 2010-2015, oil tankers were a prime target for pirates. Most tankers lacked armed support on the ship, and the tankers were far from the protection of naval fleets. Pirates took advantage of the situation, especially along the coast of Africa. According to media reports, pirates claimed more than a billion dollars in oil and over 400,000 barrels from Nigeria alone in 2015. The threat of pirate attacks has caused oil tankers to become hesitant to move into major shipping lanes on their own, slowing the flow of oil throughout the African region.


While terrorists can attack ships, they also pose a large threat to infrastructure, particularly to the world’s busiest canals. A canal is a delicate system of locks that must be raised and lowered precisely in order to move a ship through the waterway. The destruction of a lock may shut down a major canal for months at a time, and the destruction of a series of locks could reduce the capacity of the canal for years, causing global oil, and oil-related product prices to significantly increase. According to the Nuclear Control Institute and American military experts, the Panama and Suez canals are already prime targets.

Military Blockade

Military blockades refer to an armed force that surrounds or impedes an enemy in order to restrict the movement of enemy troops. Military blockades have been an effective method of closing one country off to the rest of the world for centuries. For example, the British blockade during the American Revolution, the German blockade of Great Britain during World War I, and the land blockade of Berlin in the 1940s. A military blockade of major ports, or the destruction of shipping facilities at those ports, could hamper a country’s ability to accept oil and energy deliveries.

Military Assault

The full-scale military assault on shipping lanes could also significantly impact the world’s global oil supply. Most nations are signatories of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a document that established the permanent definitions for territorial and international waters. Any attack on a ship in international waters by a naval vessel from a foreign country could be considered an act of war, and bring a full response from the attacked nation.

The world’s oceans are essential platforms for the transportation of oil to international markets. According to the American Energy Information Administration, leading importers would suffer enormous economic damage if the flow of oil was interrupted, even for a short time. Therefore, protecting the oil supply will require keeping an eye on nation-states with the ability to enforce blockades and military assaults, as well as pirates and terrorist groups who can cause major damage to small targets.

Learn More

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Our online Master of Arts in International Relations program offers a curriculum that evolves with current events to help you face the future of international affairs. Norwich University’s master’s degree in international relations covers many subjects to give you a look at the internal workings of international players, examine the role of state and non-state actors on the global stage, and explore different schools of thought. You can further strengthen your knowledge by choosing one of four concentrations in International Security, National Security, International Development or Cyber Diplomacy.


IMO Profile, Business.un.org

Iran’s Missile Tests Remind the U.S. That Tensions Have Not Ended, The New York Times

Obama Bars Atlantic Offshore Oil Drilling in Policy Reversal, Bloomberg

Suez Canal Attacks: Will Security Threats Make The Panama Canal A Better Option?, International Business Times

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, United Nations

Massive Oil Theft by Pirates Costs Nigeria $1.5 Billion every month, USA Today

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