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Oil price spikes on supply fears as frantic rescue efforts to free stuck Suez supertanker

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Oil and commodities prices spiked up sharply today after a giant shipping container got jammed sideways in the Suez Canal, leading to a pile-up of global cargo traffic on either side of the vital trade link.

Crude oil prices which had been falling this week rebounded by 2%, while commodities such as iron ore and copper jumped by around 1% as investors feared major delays in supply.

The Suez Canal is the main link between Asia and Europe, bearing goods ranging from clothes destined for Europe’s shops to high fashion from Burberry and Prada heading to Beijing’s ritziest boutiques.

More than half of the ships travelling through, though, are oil tankers and bulk commodities cargo ships, which last year made up 27% of traffic each.

Ship tracking websites showed large numbers of vessels piling up in the Gulf of Suez to the South and the Great Bitter Lake to the north of where the 200,000-tonne Ever Given ship was stuck.

More still appeared to be waiting in the Mediterranean outside Port Said at the northern end of the canal.

TankerTrackers analysts said ships carrying oil from Saudi Arabia, Russia, Oman and the US were backed up either side of the canal.

Tracking data showed the Ever Given had been heading for Rotterdam under a Panama flag. It left China on March 7.

Richard Meade, editor of shipping journal Lloyd’s List, told the Evening Standard if the salvage company SMIT could not find a way of refloating the ship in the coming days, it would have “seismic repercussions” for global trade.

He said the Ever Given was one of the largest ships in the world and was fully laden due to the huge pandemic-induced demand that has been seen in the shipping industry.

“You’ve got ships stacking up at the moment,” he said, “but no one is prepared to divert immediately, because to take the alternative route around the Cape of Good Hope you would be looking at extending the journey by anything up to around 20 days.

“That would have a significant impact on costs around fuel to the industry.”

He said the disruption all depended on how long it would take SMIT to shift the vessel.

“It may be that it takes weeks to clear,” he said, adding: “If SMIT can’t shift it, nobody can.”

Analysts are concerned that a lengthy delay could trigger big insurance claims for the Lloyd’s of London insurance market, which is famed for covering big cargo shipments.

Ten per cent of world trade travels through the canal, averaging 50 vessels a day.

Dr Sal Mercogliano, a maritime historian at Campbell University, told the BBC: “There have been previous groundings, most recently in 2017 but never one of a ship this size or this dramatic, literally shutting the canal down by crossing its entire width.

“According to the ship’s agent, it lost power and went dark. In that scenario they would lose not only propulsion but also the rudder controls. It appears the vessel veered to the right, went ashore on the eastern bank and because of its length – this is one of the largest container ships in the world, she’s wider than the canal.

“They have been trying to pull her off, there’s about half a dozen tugboats on her. The problem is she’s 200,000 tons, and being aground all the way up on the eastern bank and listing to port it’s very hard to pull her off.

“They’re in a very dangerous, precarious position with both ends of the vessel on the beach there’s a potential for it to sag in the middle.

“If they cannot lift her off with tugs they will have to start to remove fuel out of her and containers but the difficulty there is she’s so tall it will be very difficult to get the correct size cranes in there.

“They are in the process of digging her out, there are excavators in there right now trying to dredge and dig out her stern then she’s got to be pulled back the way she came.

“The really precarious thing is the arrival of ships expecting to use the canal. They will start piling up at the north and south ports, Port Said and Port Suez.

““Ten percent of world trade uses the canal, averaging 50 vessels a day, and we’re in the second day of not being able to move any vessels. Shipping companies are going to have to make adecision fairly soon whether to route the vessels around Africa which adds an additional 12 to 14 days.

“Because of Covid, the movement of goods has already slowed down and suddenly there’s this, so you are going to have a delay in getting goods to market. Vaccines, fuel, manufacturing goods, food, everything.. with potentially catastrophic delays .”

Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association said his organisation’s members were watching the situation closely and that finished goods from China to the UK might be affected although he did not expect any immediate issues for UK supplies as importers will have stockpiles to cope with limited delays.

Brent crude oil gained $1.34 to $62.13 a barrel while the S&P GSCI commodities index was up 1%.

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