Oil-Tanker Piracy Reveals Supply Vulnerability

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Energy: Piracy has always been a shipping hazard, but Somalia's buccaneers have taken it up a notch. Their hijacking of a supertanker Monday shows how vulnerable oil supplies are and how critical it is to stop them.

Events around the Horn of Africa are often bellwethers of trouble. The terror attacks on the USS Cole and the U.S. embassies in East Africa presaged 9/11. Saturday's unprecedented attack on a 319,000-ton supertanker with $100 million in oil could be a warning of a new threat to world energy.

The Somali pirates who launched the attack on a Saudi-flagged carrier hijacked the largest vessel ever, taking it 480 miles from Mogadishu, the farthest it had ever been from a coast. Obviously it was no crime of opportunity, but the act of an organized criminal syndicate now strong enough to threaten global energy security.

Loss of the MT Sirius Star, with its cargo of 2 million barrels of oil, took more than a quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily oil production off the market. It was part of the 4% of global oil exports that transport through the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. Not only is the open sea unsafe for transport, but two ocean routes — through the Suez, and around the Cape of Good Hope, are now both dangerous.

A picture of what is happening is important: Somalia is a failed state that's become a pirate paradise. The 88 attacks off its coast and the Gulf of Aden in 2008 account for a third of the world's sea hijackings. Unarmed tankers and cargo ships are easy pickings, and with no government to turn to for help, shipping companies pay ransoms to recover their ships and kidnapped crewmen.

Of course when a ransom is paid, a new hijacking takes place afterward. The New York Times reports that Somali officials say that 2008 is a record year for pirate profits, with ransoms bringing in $50 million so far. The attacks have grown bolder — a Ukrainian weapons ship was seized just before the supertanker was taken.

Clearly, anarchy is fueling piracy and ransoms are empowering pirates. If they are to be stopped, coordinated action from the international community, the kind used to break terror and drug-trafficking groups, is critical, and every nation must be a partner.

First, the Gulf states that produce oil should take a more visible role in fighting this threat to their livelihoods. They already have good domestic operations against terrorists who threaten their oil installations, but they will need to expand to maritime powers.

Meanwhile, shipping companies must help too. They will have to accept guarded patrol runs. The French and U.S. navies have already begun doing this.

More importantly, the paying of ransoms has to end. The fact that no U.S. ships have been attacked in that area probably has much to do with U.S. policy to never negotiate with terrorists.

Third, ships will probably have to be armed, which can create danger on energy carriers but could be achieved through noncombustible devices such as water cannons. Arming ships will raise costs, but it will reduce attacks, ransoms and insurance rates.

Fourth, as hopeless as it sounds, Somalia needs nation-building. Its failed-state conditions are the root of the piracy. The United Nations, which runs the government there, needs to do more to create alternatives to piracy.

Halting piracy is important because it is a significant risk to the world's energy. Not only is the global crude supply vulnerable, but pirates can create "five Hiroshimas" if they get hold of a liquefied natural gas tanker, an expert quoted by the Los Angeles Times said. They can also shut down sea lanes.

The pirate organizations grow stronger with every attack and can eventually take over a state. From there, the ground is laid for worse, with terror organizations and drug traffickers finding a welcome lair. Unless this is stopped, it will multiply the threat.

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