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The Role of Energy In The Mega Project of Canal İstanbul - Can Arıhan

Although Turkey is heavily dependent on oil and natural gas imports for its energy needs, it has a unique advantage in the regional energy matters: its highly strategic geopolitical position. Major energy pipelines such as Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), Blue Stream Natural Gas Pipeline, TurkStream Natural Gas Pipeline, Tabriz-Ankara Natural Gas Pipeline, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline, and Kirkuk-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline go through Turkey either with the intention of delivering energy only to Turkey or to ultimately deliver energy resources to Europe. Also, as a result of the energy pipelines bringing significant energy resources there, the small port city of Ceyhan is emerging as an energy hub. Therefore, any observer who studies European and Middle Eastern energy matters would notice that Turkey is emerging (or has already emerged) as a regional energy hub.

The Mega Project of Kanal İstanbul is set to play (if constructed) a major role in this energy puzzle in the region, for Turkey’s significance in the regional energy matters is not confined to energy pipelines it hosts. Turkish Straits (i.e., Bosporus Strait and the Strait of Çanakkale), one of the most strategic waterways globally, sees over 40.000 vessels each year. Included in this number, many vessels carry oil and other energy resources. In 2019, almost 9000 tankers that carried energy resources (e.g., LNG, oil) sailed through the Turkish Straits. Parallel to that figure, a report by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that 8832 vessels with hazardous cargo (including oil tankers) passed through the Turkish Straits in 2017. The cargo they carried was at 146.943.000 million tons. For example, shipments from major Russian oil ports in the Black Sea, Novorossiysk and Tuapse, have to pass the Turkish Straits to reach the world energy markets (according to Anadolu Ajansı, 38 percent of Russian maritime crude oil exports pass through the Bosporus).

As we have seen the strategic importance of the Turkish Straits (and Turkey in general) in the regional energy puzzle, we shall now move onto the mega-project Kanal İstanbul and its role in this energy puzzle. Although this project might seem like a novelty, it has been discussed many times throughout history. Dating back to the era of Suleiman the Magnificent, even Ottomans had ideas to connect the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea with a canal. The same idea has been proposed several times in the modern Turkish Republic as well. Now once again, this mega project is on the table after the Turkish government is finalizing its plans to initiate the construction of the canal, which will be around 45 kilometers long, that will connect the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea with another waterway (in addition to the Bosporus).

Any person, who has been following the Turkish media lately, would have noticed how fiercely the debates about this mega project continued. These political debates and environmental considerations are out of this article's scope (and outside of my expertise). Still, as a concerned Turkish citizen, I must briefly state that such a huge project should only be constructed if it has no or minimal damages on the environment and if it is economically feasible.

We now continue with the potential benefits that the Kanal İstanbul project may bring about after these reservations. Milliyet notes that the average waiting time at the Bosporus for large vessels is over 14 hours, and this waiting may be as high as 3-4 days if there is an accident. And Bloomberg notes that in 2019 oil tankers waited around 13 days to exit the Black Sea, and tankers holding about 39 million barrels of oil were lined up to cross the Turkish Straits. In addition to these long waiting times, according to the Petroleum Economist, over 400 serious accidents (including tanker collisions) have taken place in the Bosporus since 1948.

Kanal İstanbul can help to limit these problems (if not solve them). Although it is difficult to project the exact number of vessels carrying energy resources that will pass through the Kanal İstanbul; it is certain that, when there is another waterway available from the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea, both the waiting time of the vessels and the possibility of accidents due to congestion will decrease. Therefore, this mega canal's construction will help ease the congestion in a waterway, where 3 million barrels of oil transit through each day, and contribute to both Turkish and world energy markets. With oil (and other energy resources like LNG) crossing the Turkish Straits faster, world oil markets will become more efficient. Turkey will benefit from the increased importance of its waterways.

Apart from these positive effects in terms of transmission of energy and energy geopolitics, Kanal İstanbul will also generate energy. According to Daily Sabah, 14.000 megawatts per hour of electricity will be generated by an underwater turbine power plant installed below Kanal İstanbul. It is a very ambitious claim, but the Turkish energy markets will hugely benefit from it if this project materializes.

All in all, (if constructed), Kanal İstanbul is set to contribute to Turkey’s strategic geopolitical position regarding energy matters. After noting the reservations above about the environment and economic feasibility, it seems valid to state that Turkey, which already enjoys unique importance in the regional energy puzzle, will strengthen its role in energy matters after the Kanal construction.


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