Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Looming Threat to Gas Prices: Strait of Hormuz Explained

By Aaron Task

Global oil prices jumped to a nine-month high Tuesday to $106 a barrel after Iran announced it was stopping oil shipments to France and Britain. Iran is responding to heavy pressure from America, Europe and other allies, who want to stop the country's nuclear power program before the radical regime can build nuclear weapons.

This most recent move by Iran to ban oil exports to the two European countries comes as a direct preemptive response to the European Union's planned Iran oil embargo set for this summer. The EU has already frozen assets of Iran's central bank.

In recent weeks, you've also probably heard news stories about Iran threatening to shut down the Strait of Hormuz. It hasn't happened yet, but Iran has indicated it could close the Strait or take other measures should the country feel threatened enough by the Western allies.

But right now you might be wondering: What is the Strait of Hormuz and why does it matter TO YOU?

If Iran tries to block the Strait it could have a huge impact on world oil prices, which would directly impact how much you pay for groceries, gas and electronics — all of which use oil in some way, whether it's part of the manufacturing or shipping process.

The Strait of Hormuz is a waterway that connects the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea. It is the only passage to the open ocean for some of the biggest oil producers in the Middle East

About 20% of the world's oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, including crude oil produced in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Kuwait. It's a water way that's "absolutely critical to the world economy," according Dr. Daniel Yergin, energy expert and Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Prize and The Quest.

Yergin calls the Strait of Hormuz "the most important chokepoint in the world."

Because so much of the world's oil travels through Strait, any disruption to the shipping channel would have a major impact on global crude oil prices, which ultimately determine the price we pay for gas at the pump.

Some analysts estimate the price of oil could go up by 50% within days if there's a disruption of supply, which would mean much higher prices for us filling our tanks at the gas station — and anything else that requires the use of oil. Crude oil and gas prices have risen sharply since September in large part because of the threat of a disruption in the Strait of Hormuz.

"We've seen oil prices just on threats go up $5, $10 a barrel" in a day, Yergin says. "This is Iran's trump card."

The average price for regular unleaded gas today is $3.58 up nearly 9% since the beginning of this year, according to That is still slightly lower than the highest record average price of $4.11 set in July 2008. But many analysts are predicting that with the threat from Iran coupled with the warmer weather ahead, the U.S. maybe be headed for $4 or even $5 gas prices.

Whether Iran really can shut down the Strait is a big question. Jan Stuart of Credit Suisse says it would be "suicidal" for the Iranians to even try.

"Closing the Strait of Hormuz -- that thing is...30 miles wide," Stuart says. "You need a gazillion boats to literally close it off. It can't happen." (See: $100 Oil Is Here to Stay, but Iran Closing the Strait of Hormuz "Can't Happen": Stuart)

Still, Iran's Navy has recently been conducting military exercises in the area. Some experts say the Iranians are preparing to attack oil tankers in the Strait with missiles and torpedoes from submarines. They might not shut the critical passage down but such attacks would certainly disrupt crude shipments and cause a spike in oil prices.

Whether the Iranians just bluster or actually go on the attack, we're likely to hear more news about this critical waterway in the days and weeks ahead, and that news will have a direct impact on the global economy and how much you're paying for products here in the U.S.

Aaron Task is the host of The Daily Ticker. You can follow him on Twitter at @aarontask or email him at

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