An Egyptian man sits and eats ice cream as he watches international cargo and tanker ships pass through the Suez canal
Scott Nelson | Getty Images
Several of the world’s major tanker companies on Friday halted traffic toward the Red Sea after U.S. and British airstrikes on Iran-allied Houthi militants in Yemen.
The companies are among the world’s largest operators of tankers for petroleum products such as gasoline, according to their websites. Stena Bulk also transports crude oil.
“Considering these developments and in alignment with expert recommendations, we have decided to immediately halt all ships heading toward or within the affected vicinity,” Hafnia spokesperson Sheena Williamson-Holt told CNBC in statement.
The multinational coalition advised ships to avoid transiting the Bab el-Mandeb Strait for “several days,” according to a statement from the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners.
“The situation is dynamic and ships should consider holding outside of the area while a period of taking stock of the situation is undertaken until daylight on Saturday 13 January,” the tanker association said.
The Bab el-Mandeb Strait connects the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea. Some 7 million barrels of crude oil and products transit the Red Sea daily, according the trade analytics firm Kpler.
West Texas Intermediate futures spiked more than 4% to $75.25 while Brent touched $80.75 earlier in the session. The benchmarks have since pulled back with U.S. crude trading at $72.89 a barrel and Brent trading at $78.53.
“The market is going to wait to see whether we see this spread to a significant waterway for oil like the Strait of Hormuz,” Helima Croft with RBC Capital Markets told CNBC on Friday. Some 18 million barrels of crude and products transit the Strait of Hormuz daily, according to Kpler.
Robert McNally, president of Rapidan Energy, said the key flashpoint is really Lebanon, where Israel has threatened to push Iran-allied Hezbollah back from the border area. Hezbollah is Iran’s strategic right arm, McNally said, and Tehran would have to respond.
“Its leverage point is oil, specifically gasoline prices in an election season,” McNally said of Iran. The risk is that Tehran would respond to a major Israeli attack against Hezbollah by attacking oil vessels in the Strait of Hormuz or by targeting oil infrastructure in the Arabian Gulf, McNally said.
Iran’s Navy seized a crude oil tanker on Thursday in the Gulf of Oman.
Goldman Sachs has said oil prices could double if there is a prolonged disruption in the Strait of Hormuz, though the investment bank views that scenario as unlikely.
Houthis vow to respond
U.S. and British warplanes launched strikes against the Houthis, who are allied with Iran, after the militants repeatedly attacked commercial vessels in the Red Sea in defiance of coalition warnings.
“These strikes are in direct response to unprecedented Houthi attacks against international maritime vessels in the Red Sea — including the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles for the first time in history,” President Joe Biden said in a statement Thursday.
The U.S. Air Force launched more than 60 strikes on 16 Houthi locations using over 100 precision-guided munitions, according to U.S. Central Command.
The Houthis have vowed to retaliate for the U.S. and British airstrikes.
The Houthis have launched 27 attacks on shipping lanes in waterway since Nov. 19, according to U.S. Central Command. The militants say the attacks are in response to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.
The bulk of those attacks have been on container ships. Tanker traffic in the Red Sea was steady throughout December, averaging 230 vessels daily compared 239 in November, according to Kpler.
Container ship traffic, on the other hand, dropped 31% in December compared to the month prior, according to Kpler data.
— CNBC’s Lori Ann Larocco contributed to this report.