Flying above oceanic anchorages near the world’s largest oil ports reveals a tangle of all sorts of cargo ships waiting to bunker (refuel), as well as load or unload petroleum or chemicals. Oil ports often—though not always—also boast proximity to both vast land-based tank farms for the storage of oil, natural gas, and petrochemicals, as well as to refineries. These oil facilities are usually visible in their totality only from the air or from the sea, with loading buoys sometimes a mile or more away from the shore itself, and the ships anchoring still further. Tank farms tend to be hidden behind layers of barbed wire fencing and security, and strips of wasteland often separate them from the roads that run alongside. These interconnected coastal infrastructures reveal the extent to which the extraction, storage, pricing, and sale of petroleum and petrochemical products is not just dependent on the maritime circulation of petroleum products, but is fundamentally defined by it. Bound up in the politics of circulation are the asymmetries of power: between producing nations and the consumers; between producers of crude and those who refine the oil; between those who work on the ships, tank farms, and infrastructures, and those who profit from them; amongst hegemonic leviathans, rising global powers, and those struggling against imperial economic arrangements.
Because so much transportation (on the roads and in the air) and factory production has ceased as a result of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the demand for oil has dramatically dropped. Simultaneously, a pricing war triggered by Saudi Arabia against Russia has flooded the market with oil. The effect of the pandemic on the circulation of oil and its derivative products has been revealing. First and foremost, the pandemic has shown the brittleness of global trade: the very condition of possibility of commerce across the oceans is also what makes it vulnerable to disruption, with ships and airplanes becoming vectors of transmission. This brittleness and unpredictability extends to the trade in oil, but its effects are paradoxical: despite a general lull in global trade, the chartering of tanker ships has expanded, rather than contracted.
The pandemic has also shown that the upstream production of oil is affected by the downstream processes and financial pricings that are usually conceptualized as subsequent to production. This imagined sequencing—production first, sale and transport thereafter—obscures the foundational role of the circulation of oil in defining the very parameters of its production, but also the long reach of its maritime transportation into the financing and pricing of oil.
Financial and Physical Markets
In late April 2020, an image circulated on social media that looked like a screen-capture from a ship-tracking…
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