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Oil tanker shortages drive costs higher

With about $100 million worth of crude oil in its hold, the tanker Front Page will leave Kuwait in a few weeks, heading for Louisiana via the Suez Canal. When it arrives 30 days later, its two million barrels will feed refineries throughout the Midwest with crude they will turn into heating oil for the winter.

The trip will be expensive. Exxon Mobil is paying Frontline, the ship's Norwegian owner, $6.95 million to make the journey. Last year, the price was $2.4 million for a similar haul.

With global oil demand surging and prices hitting record levels, the world's 1,500 oil tankers are all booked up, and charter rates are soaring. The shortage of tankers is one sign of how strong demand and a lack of investment have left the oil industry's infrastructure stretched thin.

These strains contribute to climbing energy costs for consumers. Estimates by the U.S. Energy Information Agency indicate the increase in oil transport costs this year translates into an extra 5 cents a gallon, or 1.3 cents per liter, for gasoline at the pump.

"Five years ago, when you were looking to book a ship in the Persian Gulf, you used to find 10 ships available," said Jeffrey Goetz, a consultant at Poten & Partners, a broker in New York. "Today, you find three, sometimes only one or two. That's what makes the market feel so tight."

In part because of China's growing appetite for oil, the world is expected to consume 2.7 million more barrels a day this year than it did in 2003, and most of that is being carried by ships crisscrossing the oceans. The strong demand has contributed to a 73 percent jump in oil prices in the last year. A barrel of oil topped $55 for the first time on Friday, although the price retreated Monday, falling $1.73 a barrel to $53.20 by midafternoon in New York.

With shipowners finding it difficult to meet demand for the first time since 1973, tanker rates have more than doubled in recent weeks to a 30-year high.

Rates on the largest ships, like those traveling between the Gulf and Japan, averaged $35,000 a day from 1995 to 2004 but have jumped to as much as $135,000 a day recently, according to Goetz. On a 40-day voyage, the difference adds up to $4 million.

"It's a good business to be in," said Tor Olav Troim, vice president of Frontline, the world's largest tanker owner. "All the ships are being used today. In this market, we're making $5 million every day of net profit, even on Sundays."

High oil prices partly reflect supply concerns stemming from the war in Iraq, the threat of strikes in oil-producing countries like Venezuela and Nigeria and the fact that exporting countries like Saudi Arabia are already pumping nearly all the oil they can. These fears have added as much as $15 to the price of a barrel, analysts said.

But Erik Kreil, an analyst with the Energy Information Agency, part of the U.S. Energy Department, suggests oil prices are also high because the basic infrastructure of oil supply simply cannot meet the growth in demand this year.

"It's not fear that's driving prices; it's the market fundamentals that everyone overlooked," Kreil said.

The tanker shortfall is just one of the pressures facing oil markets - a tightness that runs throughout the oil production chain, from fewer oil discoveries to a lack of refineries.

Paul Horsnell, who directs energy research at Barclays Capital in London, said the industry was paying the price for its lack of investments in the 1990s. "Everywhere you look, there's a shortage," Horsnell said.

Low oil prices throughout the 1980s and 1990s after a glut of capacity from investments made in the 1970s resulted in few refineries, tanker terminals and pipelines being constructed. For example, not a single new refinery was built in the United States in three decades. But at the same time, demand for oil has grown steadily.

"There's been underinvestments in absolutely everything," Horsnell said. "What we've got here is payback throughout the industry for a market that's relied too long on spare capacity."

Major oil companies ordered hundreds of giant oil tankers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, after price shocks and the closing of the Suez Canal sent ripples of concern through the West over the security of oil supplies.

But then prices collapsed and the world economy went into a tailspin. For the industry, that meant there were too many ships and too little demand, said Morten Arntzen, president and chief executive of Overseas Shipholding Group, one of the world's top shipowners.

"Being a tanker owner in the 1980s and 1990s was an unattractive business," Arntzen said. "It took two decades to flush out that oversupply."

Over the last decade, the number of tankers in operation has essentially been unchanged, with new ships slowly replacing older vessels that were scrapped.

Also, because of two major oil spills in Europe in recent years, oil companies have come under pressure to require tankers to have double hulls, which are thought to be less prone to spills.

New industry rules, adopted by the International Maritime Organization in 2001, require ships built before 1982 to be taken out of service by next April, while single-hull ships must be scrapped by 2010. In all, 40 percent of the existing fleet may go and it seems unlikely that enough new ships can be built to replace them in time, some shipowners say.

Oil industry analysts, shipbrokers and shipowners have all been caught short by the global growth in oil demand, particularly coming from China, which alone has accounted for 40 percent of that growth in the last four years.

"China has been the big surprise," said Peter Evensen, executive vice president of Teekay Shipping.

China became a net importer of oil in 1993. Its consumption is set to increase 15 percent this year, after jumping 11 percent last year, according to the International Energy Agency.

Evensen said the strains were likely to continue for a while longer, as it takes about four years for a tanker to be delivered once it is ordered.

In the meantime, the existing fleet will remain busy. After unloading at the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the Front Page is already booked to load oil in West Africa and bring it to the United States.

Those in the industry say shipping prices are likely to keep rising.

"We get asked whether there are enough ships," said Louisa Follis, director of research at Simpson, Spence & Young, a London shipbroker. "Well, how much do you want to pay?"

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