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28 Apr 2009

Odd Sight off Devon Coast is Sign of the Times

Well you try taking a photo of tankers out at sea on your mobile phone from a moving train at dusk...

Well, you try taking a photo of tankers out at sea on your mobile phone from a moving train at dusk...

I travelled on the train the other day from Exeter back to Totnes, and one of the greatest pleasures about that trip is the stretch of track between Exeter and Newton Abbott, when it goes along the coast near Teignmouth. Many people travelling from London to the South West remark on that stretch of the trip and their first sight of the sea. Now however, that vision is augmented by the unusual sight of 10 oil tankers, moored together just off the coast.

Along the Devon coast, the sight of tankers or cargo ships is not unusual, but to see so many of them in one place is quite unusual, so what is going on?  Turns out this oil-laden flotilla is a result of the low oil prices that have resulted from the current economic contraction. These tankers contain, collectively enough oil to make around 340 million litres of petrol, enough, according to the Daily Mail, to fill 7 million Ford Mondeos, worth a potential £321 million. Basically, the price of oil is now so low on the international markets that it is worth keeping oil on ships like this, waiting for the price to rise again.

The ships in Lyme Bay have been there for a while now (the longest so far is 8 weeks), and could stay there for a great deal longer yet, if the oil price stays low, which given the dreadful state of the economy, seems highly likely. It keeps the owners happy (their ships are being used and they are guaranteed a rental income), keeps the speculators happy (the oil on these ships has already been bought and sold many times on the trip to Devon) and also keeps the local economy happy.

Quoted by the BBC, Jerry Carter of the Torbay and Brixham Shipping Agency who says that the ships are a huge boost to the local economy, employing local people, using local suppliers, hairdressers and dentists. So everyone is a winner. The last time so many oil tankers sat in Lyme Bay was the early 1980s. The President of the AA, in the organisation’s usual absurd fashion, is quoted in the piece in the Daily Mail as saying “’traders and speculators seem to be storing up oil until the price rises. Drivers can expect more hikes in the pipeline.’ Of course the driver is king. Never mind that the low oil price has led to the UK photovoltaics industry being in danger of collapse, funding for renewable initiatives falling through the floor, and funding for the oh-so-urgent work of rebuilding our resilient infrastructures drying up fast.

While the economic storms facing the UK are having a huge impact and have led to this situation, we can only hope that, with 340 million litres of fuel sat just off the coast, Devon doesn’t experience any major storms of a more literal kind.

Categories: Economics, Energy

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28 Apr 8:59am

or a return of Cornish piracy…

I had no idea that oil was bought and sold en-route, but apparently its not unusual for the destination to change depending on who’s paying the most. I wonder how long it will be before governments clamp down on oil speculation.

Mike Grenville
28 Apr 11:35am

These ships are likely to be there for a while and this is being repeated in many other places.

China’s oil demand fell by nearly six per cent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2009, Energy Intelligence (EI), the US-based energy advisory firm has said. EI did not take into account stockpiles that the Chinese government has allegedly been building to make use of the low oil prices. The statistics exacerbates the widespread fear among analysts that oil demand, and therefore oil prices may seriously suffer this year because of low “actual demand”.

According to Bloomberg traders are storing 100 million barrels of oil at sea, enough to supply Europe for five days. Oil is mostly being stored on modern double-hulled carriers. In fact 10% of all of the 405 such carriers in service is used just for storage at this point.

Steve Atkins
28 Apr 12:07pm

I’m looking for a small wooden boat on freecycle, just big enough to hold 10 barrels of oil. Then I’ll find a cheap mooring in Weymouth harbour, or possibly Portland harbour (as that seems a popular place for fuel storage facilities).

My little boat would hold enough oil to keep me lubricated until, hmmm, let me see… as an average UK citizen, maybe 12 months?

Now imagine 60 million little boats bobbing around our UK shores – that, yes that is how much oil we consumed in 2007.


28 Apr 2:25pm

Congratulations on getting invited to speak at TED Global in July!

29 Apr 1:47pm

At last! Practical carbon sequestration!

Darren Beale
29 Apr 4:52pm

Apparently the term to describe this trading voodoo is Contango:

Jim Avery
6 May 10:53pm

I just googled to remind me where I saw this story and found you can track where these tankers are online here: