Increasing pipeline capacity in the Middle East could be the key to improving security in the region according to outgoing U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette.
Mr Brouillette made the comments following a meeting in Abu Dhabi with ministers from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel.
Their discussions centred on how the September signing of the Abraham Accords – which normalised diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab states – could help to improve energy security.
The Middle East is home to over half the world’s oil reserves but getting oil out of the region is often far from straightforward.
Most exports are shipped via the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait of Hormuz is the only passage from the Persian Gulf to open sea, through which tankers carrying oil from the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran, and some Iraq ports must travel to reach the ocean.
The Strait is one of the world’s most strategically important choke points. A third of the world’s liquefied natural gas passes through it and almost 25 percent of global oil consumption.
Iran have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz on numerous occasions, normally in response to U.S. provocations.
If Iran ever did follow through on its threats and there was even a partial closure of the Strait, then it would wreak havoc on global oil markets, interrupt energy supplies and pose a severe threat to the stability of the Middle East.
Unsurprisingly, nations such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia have long sought to find alternatives to shipping through the Strait for exporting their oil.
The UAE now operates the Abu Dhabi Crude Oil Pipeline which is capable of carrying 1.5 million barrels per day to Fujairah, the country’s only port on the Indian Ocean, allowing exports to bypass the Strait.
Saudi Arabia meanwhile has a 745 mile long pipeline stretching from one of its key supply facilities in the east of the country to the port of Yanbu in the west, where supplies can be exported via the Red Sea.
Further pipeline projects in the region could help improve energy security by decreasing the reliance on shipping to transport supplies. Tankers are vulnerable to not just disruptions in shipping lanes such as the Strait of Hormuz, but also piracy and terrorism.
The Abraham Accords and improving relations between Israel and the Middle East opens up the prospect of constructing pipelines which take supplies straight to the Mediterranean.
This was one of the issues discussed at the meeting in Abu Dhabi, with Mr Brouillette saying: “If we can move natural gas to the coast of Egypt or the coast of Israel, then we are moving it through the Mediterranean rather than going through some of the other choke points that we are all accustomed to.”
The Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline is an example of what is possible. Built by Israel and Iran in the 1960s, it has a capacity of 600,000 barrels a day and runs 157 miles from the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean.
Following the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran ceased using the pipeline as relations between the two countries were frozen.
In 2003, Russian oil began arriving in Ashkelon via tankers from Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. The oil was then transported through the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline and reloaded onto tankers once it reached the Red Sea for shipping to Asia.
This new route from Europe to Asia offered a significantly shorter journey than the traditional one around Africa and provided a cheaper alternative to shipping via the Suez Canal.
Almost immediately after the signing of the Abraham Accords, Israel and the UAE reached a preliminary agreement to send oil from the Emirati through the pipeline for the European market.
“Part of the conversation we’re having with the Abraham Accords is to look for alternatives to shipping, so that’s why these pipelines are so important,” said Mr Brouillette as Arab states and
Israel look to increase pipeline capacity with further projects to guarantee security for the region.
What support they will receive from the U.S. for such schemes remains unclear. Mr Brouillette leaves his role once the Biden Administration takes over the White House.
His replacement will be Jennifer Granholm, widely seen as something of a climate hawk. Mr Biden made clear during his campaign for the Presidency that he was against the Keystone XL pipeline being completed, a project which the Trump Administration breathed new life into follow President Obama’s attempts to shut it down.
What Mr Biden’s policy will be when it comes to the security of energy supplies and the stability of the Middle East will only become clear over the coming and weeks and months.