What Does The Suez Canal Blockage Mean For Oil Prices?

Last year, the Suez Canal was used by an average of 51.5 ships per day.

On Wednesday, the significance of the Suez Canal in Egypt was uncovered as oil prices pushed up after a cargo ship ran aground, obstructing the critical chokepoint for Persian Gulf oil.

The “blip” in the oil market “represents people buying in after recent declines in oil prices, with the Suez closing the trigger factor,” said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy & Economic Research. Despite that, he thinks the Suez Canal “won’t be closed for long.”

“The Suez Canal will not spare any efforts to ensure the restoration of navigation and to serve the movement of global trade,” said Lt. Gen. Ossama Rabei, head of the Suez Canal Authority. The news agency compared the size of the ship to a skyscraper. Even so, oil prices on Wednesday bounced back to recapture much of their recent losses, after settling Tuesday at their lowest in about six weeks. 

On Wednesday, U.S. benchmark May West Texas Intermediate crude inched higher $3.42, or 5.9%, to settle at $61.81 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, following a 6.2% dip Tuesday. May Brent crude, the global benchmark, jumped $3.62, or 6%, to finish at $64.41 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe, on the heels of a 5.9% decline a day earlier.

The MV Ever Given, a Panama-flagged ship with an owner listed in Japan, turned sideways in the canal on Tuesday, upholding traffic in the waterway, which divides continental Africa from the Sinai Peninsula. An estimated 10% of total seaborne oil trade passes through the Suez Canal, which connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea.

The Suez blockage had an “outsized impact on the oil market” Wednesday, though it “really isn’t a substantial transit route for crude,” said Marshall Steeves, energy markets analyst at IHS Markit.

On a daily basis, James Williams, energy economist at WTRG Economics, mentioned the amount of oil that passed through the canal varies, but it’s close to 3 million barrels per day. “With high stocks of crude worldwide, a few days of slowdown in oil delivery is not critical to the market,” Williams noted.

Still, in a tweet Wednesday, oil analytics firm Vortexa said the approximate rate of backlog is around 50 vessels per day, and “any delays leading to re-routings will add 15 days to a Middle East to Europe voyage.” In a separate tweet early Wednesday, it said 10 crude tankers, representing about 13 million barrels of oil, could be affected by the disruption so far.

In the bigger picture, however, some analysts emphasize that the incident at the canal is not expected to be a lasting event. “The Suez Canal, in our opinion, is not a long-term issue,” said Tariq Zahir, managing member at Tyche Capital Advisors. The biggest concern is demand for oil, which is threatened by the new virus related lockdowns in Europe, and the fear that the situation is “going to replicate here in the United States.”

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