Oil tankers ‘go dark’ off Venezuela to beat tariffs

Venezuela is at the heart of a vast operation to bypass US sanctions as the maritime industry cashes in on the Maduro regime’s desperation, experts claim. (AFP)
Updated 14 November 2019

Oil tankers ‘go dark’ off Venezuela to beat tariffs

  • High-risk tricks allow ‘rogue ships’ to evade US sanctions, industry insiders warn

MIAMI: In May, after pulling out of a Chinese shipyard for repairs, a giant oil tanker set out on a perilous journey.

Dialing in “Caribbean” on a mandatory tracking system, the captain of the Liberia-flagged vessel headed west. Then, weeks later, as it neared Venezuelan waters, the VL Nichioh suddenly stopped transmitting its location, course and speed in violation of international maritime rules, essentially vanishing on the high seas without a trace.

What happened while the ship was offline remains a mystery. But when it resurfaced nine days later while steaming toward Asia, the Nichioh was riding low in the water — a sure sign to ship-tracking experts that it had turned off its transponder to cloak a valuable cargo targeted by US sanctions: Venezuelan crude oil.

As the Trump administration has clamped down on President Nicolas Maduro with sanctions set on depriving him of easy cash from Venezuela’s vast oil reserves, some ship captains and their employers are eager to help the embattled socialist by “going dark” to hide tankers brimming with crude.

But industry experts say this evasive behavior, perfected by what the US considers rogue ships transporting oil for Iran in violation of US sanctions, comes at a great risk.

“These ships are carrying
2 million barrels of crude oil,” said Russ Dallen, the Miami-based head of Caracas Capital Markets brokerage, who tracks maritime activity near Venezuela to identify sanctions-busting activity. “They can’t be blindly wandering around in the dark. It’s an environmental disaster waiting to happen.”

Under a United Nations maritime treaty, ships of over 300 tons have been required since 2004 to use what is known as an automated identification system to avoid collisions and assist rescues in the event of a spill or accident at sea.

While ship captains have the discretion to turn off the transponders as they traverse flashpoints like the Strait of Hormuz, or to evade pirates off the coast of Somalia, ship-monitoring companies have become adept at tracking a vessel’s movements and draft to help law enforcement monitor for sanctions violations and criminal behavior.

Until recently, tankers docking in Venezuela had little reason to switch off their transponders — a tactic more associated with illegal Chinese fishermen off the Pacific coast of South America or human traffickers in the eastern Mediterranean.

But in January, after Maduro was sworn in for a second term many nations considered illegitimate, the Trump administration barred US companies from dealing with the Venezuelan state-run oil giant PDVSA and threatened retaliation against foreign companies that continue to do business with it.

As part of that offensive, PDVSA’s entire fleet of 34 vessels was frozen, essentially barred from ports in the US and other Western nations, as well as a several private fleets caught delivering oil to Maduro’s ally Cuba. The move has accelerated a collapse in Venezuela’s crude production to its lowest level in seven decades despite sitting atop the world’s largest crude reserves.

“Once blacklisted, these vessels become lepers and are very hard to operate,” said Omer Primor, head of marketing at Windward, a maritime analytics firm that assists law enforcement in hunting down potential sanctions violators. “Nobody will deal with them, so they essentially become floating storage devices.”

In the nine months since sanctions were imposed, there have been 14 suspicious dark activities spotted near Venezuelan waters, according to Windward. That is about 22 percent of the 50 reported port calls to Venezuela during the same period, a sharp decline in above-board maritime traffic in the nine months prior to sanctions.

Windward said that most of the cloaked crude is going to China or Russia — Maduro’s two biggest financial backers, for whom US sanctions are less of a deterrent — as well as India.

There are other tricks companies use to duck detection, such as reporting a false destination, frequently changing management or carrying out high-risk ship-to-ship transfers in which “dark” vessels come together on the high seas to hand over their cargo. Officials in Brazil initially suspected a dark ship loaded with Venezuelan crude of being behind a mysterious spill last month that has hit 2,100 km of coastline.

In the case of the Nichioh, it unloaded cargo in early September in the Indian port of Sikka, where Reliance Industries runs the world’s largest refinery. It then sailed through the Suez Canal and Strait of Gibraltar, reporting as its destination “Carribs for Order.”

But after docking for a few days in Trinidad, the Nichioh switched to “Aruba” and went dark for 10 days, once again picking up Venezuelan crude, according to ship-tracking firm Kpler. As of Nov. 12, the ship was heading past South Africa en route to China.

According to Kpler the two voyages by the Nichioh were chartered by Russia’s state-controlled Rosneft, which itself has been sanctioned by the US for the crisis with Ukraine. Prior to US sanctions, the ship had never reported sailing in the Western Hemisphere.

The ship’s registered owner, a Liberia-based company named Major Shipping SA, could not be located for comment. Liberia is one of the world’s most popular flag states because owners can register ships with few restrictions and little more than an email address. Most of the dark activities spotted by Windward off Venezuela involved Liberia-registered ships.

But it’s not just aging hulks at the fringes of the maritime industry cashing in on Venezuela’s desperation.

In June, Cosrising Lake, owned by an affiliate of China’s shipping giant Cosco, went silent for 14 days after loading 1.9 million barrels of crude in the Venezuelan port of Jose, according to Kpler. A few weeks later, it unloaded its cargo in the Chinese port of Dongjiakou.

Cosco didn’t say why the Hong Kong-flagged ship went silent. But in a statement, it said that it operates in compliance with laws and regulations and that its ships have maintained normal operations of their AIS systems in accordance with the international convention for the safety of life at sea.

The Trump administration is also looking into reports that Hurd’s Bank off the coast of Malta is becoming a staging ground for ship-to-ship transfers to hide Russia’s supplying of chemicals that Venezuela’s industry desperately needs to dilute its heavy crude, a senior US official said. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly. Previously Venezuela imported diluents from the US

“Criminals connected to Venezuela are getting increasingly creative as they manipulate the laws that govern international maritime commerce to bypass sanctions,” said Ian Ralby, head of I.R. Consilium, a US-based consultancy.

“Authorities in the region and beyond need to be both alert and proactive in preventing the Maduro regime from using illicit activity to convert Venezuelan resources into cash.”


OPEC sees small 2020 oil deficit even before latest supply cut

Updated 12 December 2019

OPEC sees small 2020 oil deficit even before latest supply cut

  • OPEC keeps its 2020 economic and oil demand growth forecasts steady and is more upbeat about the outlook

LONDON: OPEC on Wednesday pointed to a small deficit in the oil market next year due to restraint by Saudi Arabia even before the latest supply pact with other producers takes effect, suggesting a tighter market than previously thought.

In a monthly report, OPEC said demand for its crude will average 29.58 million barrels per day (bpd) next year. OPEC pumped less oil in November than the average 2020 requirement, having in previous months supplied more.

The report retreats further from OPEC’s initial projection of a 2020 supply glut as output from rival producers such as US shale has grown more slowly than expected. This will give a tailwind to efforts by OPEC and partners led by Russia to support the market next year.

OPEC kept its 2020 economic and oil demand growth forecasts steady and was more upbeat about the outlook.

“On the positive side, the global trade slowdown has likely bottomed out, and now the negative trend in industrial production seen in 2019 is expected to reverse in 2020,” the report said.

Oil prices were steady after the report’s release, trading near $64 a barrel, below the level some OPEC officials have said
they favor.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Russia and other producers, a group known as OPEC+, have since Jan. 1 implemented a deal to cut output by 1.2 million bpd to support the market. At meetings last week, OPEC+ agreed to a further cut of 500,000 bpd from Jan. 1 2020.

The report showed OPEC production falling even before the new deal takes effect.

In November, OPEC output fell by 193,000 bpd to 29.55 million bpd, according to figures the group collects from secondary sources, as Saudi Arabia cut supply.

Saudi Arabia told OPEC it made an even bigger cut in supply of over 400,000 bpd last month. The Kingdom had boosted production in October after attacks on its oil facilities in September briefly more than halved output.

The November production rate suggests there would be a 2020 deficit of 30,000 bpd if OPEC kept pumping the same amount and other factors remained equal, less than the 70,000 bpd surplus implied in November’s report and an excess of over 500,000 bpd seen in July. OPEC and its partners have been limiting supply since 2017, helping to revive prices by clearing a glut that built up in 2014 to 2016. But higher prices have also boosted US shale and other rival supplies.

In the report, OPEC said non-OPEC supply will grow by 2.17 million bpd in 2020, unchanged from the previous forecast but 270,000 less than initially thought in July as shale has not grown as quickly as first thought.

“In 2020, non-OPEC supply is expected to see a continued slowdown in growth on the back of decreased investment and lower drilling activities in US tight oil,” OPEC said, using another term for shale.