1. Strait of Hormuz
About 20% of the crude oil produced in the world is shipped through the Strait of Hormuz, and Iran has threatened to shut down shipping traffic through the Strait. At its narrowest, the passage is 30 miles wide, so there is a realistic case that a conflict could close it. Iran has already been isolated as a trade partner by U.S. and EU sanctions. The regime in the country has made a number of threats about what it might do if its “national interests” were threatened. If Iran follows through with its threats, the period the passage is closed could be very brief if the U.S. Navy, which has a carrier group in the region, moved to reopen the lane. But it is not clear that the American government would make that decision without the open support of allies or the United Nations. A closure of the passage, or any escalation that would make a closure more likely, will drive oil prices higher — and by extension, gasoline prices.
Iran contributes to a second problem in terms of global oil supply well beyond that of its ability to interrupt supply. Because of the embargo against the nation due to nuclear weapons violations, the U.S. has pressured large oil importers such as Japan to act to isolate Iran by cutting their imports. This puts Japan in a position in which it has to tap even tighter global supply. Japan apparently has agreed to cut its Iranian crude imports by 20%. But as the world’s third largest oil importer, Japan indeed will have to get its oil somewhere other than Iran — which will put more pressure on current production.
3. Refiners Likely to Raise Prices
Most of the oil refined on the east coast of the U.S. is Brent crude, a type of oil produced from the North Sea. The price of Brent — more than $124 a barrel — is almost $16 higher than the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude, the amount most people read about in the media. But because Brent has replaced WTI as the global price benchmark, U.S. refiners set prices for gasoline and other products as if Brent were the only grade of crude used. That allows refiners with access to cheaper WTI to make larger profits.
However, when the prices converge, as happened in the final two months of 2011, WTI refiners lose their edge — and their hefty profits. “Refiners were losing money in November and December. You can only lose money for so long,” John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute, recently said. Many large refineries are owned by public companies that do not have much appetite for posting ongoing losses. To avoid losses, refiners will have to increase gasoline prices.
4. Other Geopolitical Risks
Iran does not present the only geopolitical challenge to oil production. In Nigeria, which is the 14th largest producer of oil in the world, Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram has continued to attack Christian areas of the country. The Nigerian Army has reacted by attacking Islamists. Militants have continued to attack pipelines, apparently in a move to disrupt the government.
Meanwhile, there are concerns about supply even from Venezuela. Venezuela is the world’s 11th largest producer of crude. The regime there has been fairly stable under the 13-year reign of Hugo Chavez. But Chavez is due for a second cancer surgery later this month. The Miami Herald recently wrote that “some analysts question his [Chavez] ability to hold onto the presidency through the current election cycle.”
Other parts of the Middle East and Africa are also in turmoil. Analysts recently mentioned Bahrain, Libya, Iraq, Nigeria and Yemen as political flashpoints. “The world faces oil supply risks from a multitude of sources, not only in the Middle East but also in Africa. In our view, not since the late 1970s/early 1980s has there been such a serious threat to oil supply,” Soozhana Choi, Deutsche Bank’s head of Asia commodities research, said in a note to clients recently. All these flashpoints translate to further concerns about oil supply. And when oil supplies are tight, the price of oil — and gasoline — increases.