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Ominous Oceans: Shadow Tankers Endanger Global Waters

A growing number of oil tankers, part of an unofficial "shadow" fleet, are transporting oil from countries impacted by Western sanctions. These tankers, moving oil from Iran, Russia, and Venezuela, have raised concerns about increased accidents and potential environmental damage, according to an analysis by Reuters based on ship tracking, accident data, and interviews with over a dozen industry experts.

The number of ships participating in this parallel trade has surged in recent years due to a rise in Iranian oil exports and restrictions on Russian energy sales caused by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Eric Hanell, CEO of Stena Bulk, a tanker operator, said, "The risk of having an accident is definitely going up."

Major certification providers, engine manufacturers, and insurers have withdrawn their services from these tankers, reducing vessel safety and seaworthiness oversight. This has alarmed some industry insiders, who worry that this clandestine trade may undermine decades of efforts to improve shipping safety following disasters like the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

According to the analysis, there were at least eight accidents, near misses, or groundings involving tankers carrying sanctioned crude or oil products in 2022, the same as the previous three years combined. These incidents accounted for a small fraction of the 61 total accidents recorded in the shipping industry last year.

Jan Dieleman, president of Cargill's ocean transportation division, expressed concern over the lack of oversight and maintenance on these vessels, saying, "We do not have visibility on maintenance and safety as no one is really boarding the ships and doing checks - that is missing."

Estimates of the size of the shadow fleet range from over 400 to more than 600 ships, or about one-fifth of the global crude oil tanker fleet. Andrea Olivi, head of wet freight at commodity trader Trafigura, said their data showed around 650 units currently in operation.

The U.S. Treasury and State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Among the eight incidents reported in 2022, the Linda I tanker was detained in southern Spain carrying Russian oil. The Spanish Merchant Fleet authority confirmed the incident, citing deficiencies and a series of faults with the vessel's navigation system.

In eastern China, the Arzoyi tanker, which analysis from advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) showed was carrying Iranian oil, ran aground, causing a minor oil spill. Off the coast of Cuba, the Petion tanker, transporting Venezuelan crude, was involved in a collision with another tanker.

According to data provider VesselsValue, 774 of the 2,296 tankers in the global crude oil fleet are 15 years old or older. While the exact number of older vessels in the shadow fleet is unknown, they are generally believed to be less safe and well-maintained.

Industry participants also expressed concerns about ship-to-ship (STS) transfers involving these tankers, which pose significant safety and environmental risks. 

Trafigura's Olivi said, "The risk of a major pollution incident is very high."

By Michael Kern for Oilprice.com 

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Michael Kern

Michael Kern is a newswriter and editor at Safehaven.com and Oilprice.com,  More