TEHRAN, Young Journalists Club (YJC) - An alleged oil heist in Singapore that has already led to 20 arrests, the seizure of at least one tanker and allegations that thieves siphoned thousands of tonnes of fuel from Shell’s biggest refinery is shining a spotlight on an illegal trade worth tens of billions of dollars worldwid.
Working routes in a triangle of sea anchored by Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore and encompassing the oil facilities of Malaysia, the smugglers take advantage of a difficult-to-patrol sea and enticing black market prices, experts say.
The suspects in the latest case are accused of stealing oil from Royal Dutch Shell’s (RDSa.L) Pulau Bukom refinery, often during business hours, and distributing it around the region.
Several of the men charged worked for Shell. Employees of a major Singaporean fuel trading company and a London-listed business that inspects and certifies cargos have also been charged.
“Siphoning off fuel is a common thing in Southeast Asia. There is a huge black market for it,” said Ben Stewart, commercial manager of the shipping security firm Maritime Asset Security and Training, which has helped authorities in the region fight fuel theft and smuggling.
Singapore is by far the world’s biggest ship refueling port, and Southeast Asia’s petroleum refining hub. Hundreds of vessels pass through the small city-state’s waters every day.
Security officers say the sheer amount of traffic makes checking every ship impossible, opening the door to illegal trade.
In most cases, oil is discreetly siphoned from legal storage tanks and sold into the black market. But there have also been thefts at sea and even hijackings of entire ships to steal their fuel.
Data from the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), based in Singapore, shows more than half of the serious shipping incidents reported in the past year have occurred off the east coast of the Malaysian peninsula.
Some officials put the value of the illegal trade in Southeast Asia at $2 billion to $3 billion per year. But Yousuf Malik, principal at security consultancy Defence IQ, estimated about 3 percent of Southeast Asia’s consumed fuel is sourced illegally, worth $10 billion a year.
“The scale of the illegal oil trade varies with oil prices – when oil prices are high, so is the level of smuggling,” said Praipol Koomsup, former Thai vice minister of energy and professor at Thammasat University.
Crude oil prices LCOc1 have risen by more than 50 percent since mid-2017 to about $70 per barrel, the highest level in over three years. That increases the black market demand in poorer Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam and Thailand.
“Smuggled oil has been known to be sold to factories for industrial use, or unnamed roadside oil stations. Regular citizens and fishermen are involved in the smuggling,” Koomsup said.
Several fuel traders told Reuters that the illegal sale of fuel is common enough that companies plan for losses of 0.2-0.4 percent of ordered cargo volumes.
Stewart said one common method of theft involves a simple fudging of paperwork at sea: captains overstate how much fuel their ship is using, then sell the excess.
Sometimes entire ships are captured for their fuel cargo.
When fuel is stolen on such a large scale, it tends to be transferred to other ships at sea.
Legal ship-to-ship transfers frequently happen between oil tankers in registered zones. In the South China Sea, however, illegal traders use purpose-built ships - with some even disguised as fishing trawlers - to take in and distribute fuel.