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Turkey Adds to Complex 'Tapestry' of Oil Risks

Wednesday, 5 Jun 2013 | 1:15 AM ET
Gurcan Ozturk | AFP | Getty Images

An escalation in Turkey's most violent anti-government protests in years may complicate an already tense backdrop for energy security in the Middle East, possibly adding to the risk premium in benchmark oil prices, strategists told CNBC this week.

Although Turkey produces only negligible quantities of oil and natural gas, the country represents an "energy crossroad" – Russian energy exports from the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk flow though the strategic Turkish Straits to markets in Europe and the U.S. Turkey is also an important conduit for oil transported via pipeline from northern Iraq.

"This conflict within Turkey has geopolitical importance," said Bill Witherell, Cumberland's chief global economist in a commentary published on June 4.

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"Turkey, a member of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and important ally of the United States, has a strategic location between Europe, the Middle East and Asia. It shares a border with Syria. The civil war in that country presents significant dangers to Turkey. Iran and Iraq are also on its border. It is not only global investors that will be closely watching developments in this country," Witherell wrote in a client note.

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Approximately three million barrels a day of crude oil and refined fuels flow though the Bosporus and the Dardanelles Straits "so any disruption of traffic would mean losing the equivalent of Nigeria or Venezuela," said Gal Luft, co-director at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS).

"The market will surely keep a close eye on the developments in Istanbul, which sits on the Bosporus, and the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline which carries 330,000 barrels a day of Iraqi oil from Kurdistan to the Mediterranean," he added.

Cüneyt Kazokoglu, associate at FGE - FACTS Global Energy, estimates the total volume of oil (mainly crude) passing through the Turkish Straits at about 2.9 million barrels a day, while the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline carries around a daily 360,000 barrels of crude produced by Iraq's State Oil Marketing Organization (SOMO) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). ""We are monitoring the events closely," he said.

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Another dimension to Turkey's political tensions is the impact - if protests are prolonged - on the economy and by implication, energy demand.

The country is "a growing outlet" of demand, FACTS' Kazokoglu said, while Luft at the IAGS described Turkey as one of the world's fastest growing oil consumers. "And if the situation there deteriorates, growth will slow down which could also bring downward pressure on prices," Luft said.

Disruption?

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For now, however, strategists don't expect the crisis to disrupt tanker traffic in the Turkish Straits or oil flows transiting the country from Iraq – both important sources of revenue.

"At the current state we do not think that the protests pose any threat to these operations, hence international oil markets," FACTS' Kazokoglu said. "The majority of the demonstrators are young, relatively high educated middle-class members who have no interest in shutting down the country's infrastructure. It may sound quite unbelievable, but 'life goes on' in Istanbul."

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And that guarded optimism is echoed by oil majors monitoring the situation in Turkey.

"I'm not expecting Turkey to be a problem [for supplies]," Paolo Scaroni told Reuters on June 4. "The European supply may be in danger if the Bosporus is closed but my impression is we are miles away from that."

Still, global oil markets fret that Turkey's renewed political volatility may contribute to the ever-shifting sands of Middle Eastern politics and consequently add to supply risks in the region.

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"The geopolitical concerns that you have coming through the Bosporus and in the variety of interests all throughout the Middle East, conflict that still exists in Syria, questions about a transfer of leadership in Iran -- all these things fit into the fabric, the tapestry if you will of geopolitical concern," David McAlvany, CEO of the McAlvany Financial Group told CNBC Asia's "Squawk Box" on Wednesday. "People should be looking at it."

Eugen Weinberg, head of commodity research at Commerzbank added: "The violent protests in Turkey are fuelling fears that the unrest in the Middle East has spilled over into another country, thus further destabilizing this key oil supply region."