Sunday 29 January 2012

Hormuz and the Problem of Energy Insecurity

Tamsin Lee-Smith

The Straight of Hormuz Forbes

Shutting safe passage through the Strait of Hormuz would be as easy for Iran as drinking a glass of water, so their Naval Chief recently boasted. And yet it would risk mobilising the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, consisting of 20-plus ships supported by combat aircraft, with 15,000 people afloat and another 1,000 ashore.  For through this 21 mile wide sea lane – or choke point - passes one fifth of the world's oil and one-third of its liquid natural gas. 

The Foreign Secretary’s immediate backing of America’s willingness to use force was to be expected. While Hormuz is of strategic importance to Governments throughout the East and the West, Britain’s is particularly dependent on it. In through Oman’s waters and out via the Persian Gulf passes 84% of our liquid natural gas – the fuel which accounts for ¾ of our energy consumption.

Iran's Navy Commander Habibulah Sayari
The proportion of Britain’s fuel which is purchased from other countries – mainly Qatar – has been steadily rising since Britain became a net energy importer in 2004. According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s latest figures, Qatar’s supply to the UK grew by 67 % from 2010 to 2011 alone.  Consider this in light of the fact that our indigenous production has fallen by roughly 6.2% since 2005.  Not only are we increasingly dependent on foreign energy sources, we are reliant on a supply source characterised by greater geopolitical tension. Of course it would be wrong to become too alarmist at this stage. The risk of resorting to force over Hormuz remains low. On closer reflection, Iran’s threat may be less of a response to international sanctions and more of a domestic political ploy. 

Christopher Parry, the MoD's former Director General of Development, Concepts and Doctrine says the forthcoming Iranian elections in March, in the grand scheme of political upheaval in the Middle East, give Tehran something to worry about.  He explains, ‘what they are trying to do is create a state of crisis and emergency, which I think will lead them to defer the election because they know they are going to get hammered, unless they are able to rig it.” Posturing of this kinds leads to exactly the sort of escalation they need. But whether the closure of the Strait could happen on not, the threat has shone a light on Britain’s dependency.  When we talk about the importance of Hormuz to UK energy supply, insecurity more aptly describes the level of concern. 

When asked for comment in relation to the Hormuz situation, the Department for Energy and Climate Change was careful to be re-assuring. A spokesman said they are devoting ‘a great deal’ of time to the issue, at least for now. ‘We are working across Whitehall,’ he states, before adding that the ‘relevant Ministers have been briefed’.  

However, there is an incongruity between these assurances and the cautionary statements issued by market analysts.  DECC insisted the UK energy supply is adequately diversified: ‘we have a variety of potential gas suppliers and energy sources should we need to draw upon them, including mainland Europe and Norway, and our own North Sea.’ But our importation rates from Norway have significantly fallen. Just in the last year for example, they dropped by 17 %.

Iranian navy members take positions during a drill in the Sea of Oman Ali Mohammadi/IIPA/AP ABC
As a recent report by the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change pointed out, DECC have no strategy for which to achieve a robust state of energy security. On brief terms the Department have outlined areas to explore, for example, ‘seeking to recover indigenous reserves’ and ‘reducing domestic consumption’. In the absence of any specific targets as there are in with issue of climate change, there is little impression of any vision or commitment.

The report’s call for ‘an energy security strategy to be published in a single, dedicated document’ is one that should be welcomed from The Select Committee. But as a lone voice speaking for what is potentially one of the biggest threats to national security, there is surprisingly little debate on this stance. 

Their message is one that should be given greater amplification –especially now. In turn, the Government’s response to their Report requires even closer scrutiny. Historically, energy security measures have been at odds with green imperatives. Don’t let the fog of climate change obscure access to cheap fuel, we are told. With their aim ‘to be the greenest Government ever,’ those in control will have to make sure that what need to be their top two energy priorities are no longer mutually exclusive. 

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