Free and Open Indo-Pacific/FOIPNortheast Asia

Aging ships deliver sanctioned oil on shadowy missions


A deadly explosion aboard the tanker ship Pablo has illuminated the growing “dark fleet” of older vessels that transports sanctioned crude oil and refined products such as diesel and jet fuel. The first of what has swelled to more than 600 such ships, many of them years past their prime, began ferrying the cargo when Western nations banned or restricted oil imports from Iran, Venezuela and most recently Russia after it attacked Ukraine.

Three Pablo crew members were missing and presumed dead, and 25 others were rescued after the Gabon-registered ship exploded and burned in the South China Sea, 40 nautical miles (75 kilometers) off Malaysia’s Pulau Tinggi island, on May 1, 2023. It’s unclear what caused the blast that tore off most of the ship’s deck. The vessel’s corporate owner, registered in the Marshall Islands, had not been found. There was no record of insurance needed to begin salvage efforts. (Pictured: The charred remains of the Pablo after exploding and burning in the South China Sea in early May 2023.)

Authorities and the shipping industry have feared such a mishap since the dark fleet formed to transport sanctioned oil, a practice that increased dramatically after the European Union, the Group of Seven (G-7) major industrial nations and Australia imposed price caps and import prohibitions on Russian crude and refined oil. The accident could have been worse if the largely empty Pablo, which offloaded in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), had been filled to its capacity of about 700,000 barrels of crude oil, The Strait Times newspaper in Singapore reported in early May. The oil that washed ashore in Indonesia likely came from the Pablo’s ruptured fuel tanks, according to the Singapore-based Splash 247 website.

Most of the oil sanctioned by Western states goes to India and the PRC, reported FreightWaves, an agency that monitors global shipping. Russia did not have enough ships to transport its oil long distances after sanctions were imposed in Europe, so it began competing with Iran and Venezuela for dark fleet vessels. The moniker comes from skippers turning off their automatic identification system (AIS) transponders to avoid detection, TradeWinds, a shipping news service, reported in late January 2023. The ships also tend to change names and are registered with states known for lax regulation, TradeWinds said.

While the lifespan of most seagoing tankers is about 15 years, many of the dark fleet ships are older. The Pablo, for example, was built in 1997. Few of the vessels undergo regular safety inspections.

“You’ve got all these old vessels that are probably not being maintained to the standard they should be,” Richard Matthews, head of research at E.A. Gibson Shipbrokers, told CNN in early March 2023. “The likelihood of there being a major spill or accident is growing by the day as this fleet grows.”

The Pablo had characteristics of a dark fleet vessel. “Multiple switches of flag, class, registered owner and name changes were among the red flags to forewarn any regulator or marine service provider that a casualty was only a matter of time,” reported Lloyd’s List, a shipping news source, in early May 2023.

Older tankers pollute more and are less safe to operate, FreightWaves reported. Many aging ships previously were disassembled for scrap and replaced by newer, more efficient vessels. The dark fleet, also called the shadow fleet, “could be viewed as the new scrapping,” Svein Moxnes Harfjeld, CEO of DHT Holdings, an oil tanker company, told FreightWaves in early February 2023. “I wonder what would happen if we suddenly had a big oil tanker with 2 million barrels aboard [have an accident] close to where people live, in the Singapore Strait or the West Indian coast or the middle of the Arabian Gulf.”

The sanctions allow Western companies to deliver Russian and other restricted oil products, and provide insurance, if they comply with price caps imposed by a coalition led by the G-7. With such restrictions, global oil shipments take one of two paths, Matthews told CNN: “There’s the fleet that is not doing any Russian business, and then there’s the fleet that’s almost exclusively doing Russian business,” he said.

With high global demand for oil — the PRC, for instance, needs energy resources to kick-start its massive manufacturing industry after years of COVID-19 restrictions — it’s likely the dark fleet will keep plying the seas. The vessels comprise about 10% of large global tankers and the percentage is climbing, CNN reported.

Meanwhile, satellite images and sonar-like radio waves show ships moving in and out of the Avlita grain terminal at Sevastopol in Russian-occupied Crimea, Ukraine, in defiance of international sanctions, Bellingcat, an investigative journalism network, reported in mid-May 2023. The ships apparently turn off their AIS transponders before approaching the Black Sea port. After departing, ship-to-ship cargo transfers increase the difficulty of tracking the grain’s source, Bellingcat reported.



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