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Special report: In Libyan oil shipment, sanctions prove dumb
May 16, 2011 / 2:33 PM / 7 years ago

Special report: In Libyan oil shipment, sanctions prove dumb

LONDON (Reuters) - The deal was struck in early April. Two weeks after the U.N. Security Council vote that saved rebel-held Benghazi from near-certain defeat, Libya’s ragtag rebels agreed to the first shipment of oil from the chunk of territory they held.

<p>The Greek-owned oil tanker Equator is seen docked at Marsa el Hariga oil terminal in Tobruk April 6, 2011. REUTERS/Andrew Winning</p>

The sale promised to bring in much-needed cash for their bid to set up a parallel Libyan government. If they could pocket just a portion of oil export revenues -- worth around $145 million a day on current prices -- they could also buy the weapons they needed for their fight against Muammar Gaddafi.

Bypassing the naval blockade and braving NATO bombs, the Liberian-flagged Equator sailed into the eastern port of Marsa el Hariga in the first week of April. There, it loaded up to one million barrels of the light, sweet crude so prized by refiners before setting sail through the Suez Canal for east Asia. Oil traders believed it would unload in China.

It never made it. Since refueling in Singapore on April 28, the Equator has sat anchored off the archipelago. AIS live ship tracking data on Reuters, based on satellite signals sent from the vessel, shows its massive iron hull immersed in 15 meters draft of water -- indicating it was still carrying cargo on May 10.

The Equator’s final destination is now unclear -- and the subject of much speculation among traders and shipbrokers in an industry with a long history of finding ways around sanctions. What does seem likely, more than a dozen shipping and sanctions experts have told Reuters, is that the tanker’s expensive cargo has been caught in a legal and political limbo created by international sanctions on Libya. Western governments seem happy for the rebels to sell their oil, and a few western companies may even be ready to buy it and ship it out. But the sanctions, which never anticipated the emergence of two Libyas, make that a dangerous gamble.

The ship’s fate illustrates the often blunt nature of sanctions regimes. Diplomats and international legal experts who design sanctions often talk about making them “smart” or “targeted,” and say they can be used to hurt governments without hitting citizens. But in the case of a country divided, sorting friend from enemy can be next to impossible.

Put simply, when Libya split in two, it created a contradiction between the West’s political aims and the legal tools it was using to achieve them. The sanctions were designed to weaken Gaddafi. But the Equator shows they may be hurting the rebels more. And if western powers do turn a blind eye to rebel violations of the sanctions, that could undermine the credibility of the sanctions regime and the authority of the Security Council. It would also give Russia and China an excuse to do the same with Iran and North Korea.

“There are some issues with the design of the targeted sanctions. It wasn’t the best idea to impose an arms embargo on the entire country which technically prohibits support to the anti-Gaddafi forces. But the sanctions were brought in very quickly and the Security Council wasn’t anticipating the stalemate and potential partition of the country,” said Thomas Biersteker, professor of international security and conflict studies at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, who is an expert on UN sanctions.

“These are policy instruments designed by committee. The outcome is that they are sometimes irrational in design because each one is the product of a political compromise.”

While the shipping industry puzzles over the legality of the shipment, western powers are also setting up a special fund to transfer cash to the rebels -- something they wouldn’t have to do if they hadn’t imposed sanctions in the first place.

NO TAKERS?

On its journey, the ship’s destination seems to have changed. AIS data at one stage showed it was destined for Honolulu, indicating a possible U.S. buyer. But the final port changed in early May, prompting talk that its owners may have had second thoughts about the legality of the sale. The latest AIS shows the vessel is due in Singapore on May 18, probably to unload its oil at one of the city’s many storage caverns from where it can be resold.

One source familiar with the tanker’s movements said the ship’s cargo had already been sold and was on its way to Hawaii. But others said this was unlikely. While ships sometimes switch off their signal to avoid scrutiny or dupe ship-spotters -- including curious journalists -- the Equator has sent regular updates, with the exception of a few days.

That’s not enough time to travel to Hawaii and back. But it would be enough time to transfer the oil from one ship to another.

A spokesman at the Honolulu harbor-master’s office told Reuters a crude oil tanker was due on May 23 -- around the date the cargo could be expected to arrive from Singapore.

Whatever the case, nobody will own up to buying the oil. China’s big four state oil companies deny taking it. Vitol, the Swiss-based, publicity-shy oil trading firm that booked it, and the ship’s owners, Greek-based Dynacom Tankers Management, are both declining official comment.

By most accounts the cargo is now in limbo, and trade sources say Vitol has sold it on but it’s not clear who owns it. “Even with east Libya, you could end up with a legal quagmire,” said one oil trader formerly involved in buying Libyan oil for the Asian market, who asked not to be named because of company policy.

REWARDS, FEAR

If the risks are so high, why would anyone do business with the rebel-held chunk of Africa’s third largest oil producer? Because the potential rewards are even higher.

Firms that land early contracts with the now rebel-controlled Arabian Gulf Oil Company (Agoco) are likely to earn political points with the rebel Libyan National Council. That would come in handy if the rebels ever become the legitimate government and are able to ramp up production to normal levels. If the rebels lose, though, firms doing business with them are likely to bear the brunt of Gaddafi’s wrath, including a probable ban from dealing with the country, which has proven reserves of 41 billion barrels.

Before the Libyan conflict, Agoco sold almost one quarter, or 430,000 barrels a day (bpd), of Libya’s daily oil production. Some of that output was produced in joint ventures with foreign major oil companies -- which have moved out since the violence.

Most oil firms working in Libya before the conflict -- Exxon Mobil and Total among them -- stopped trading with the country after the United States, European Union and United Nations imposed sanctions against Tripoli in late February and early March.

Traders at western firms say Vitol’s leap of faith has done nothing to change that stance. This is despite assurances from the United States -- U.S. lawyers say Washington’s sanctions are the most stringent -- that a deal with the rebels would not be subject to sanctions, and despite the fact that OPEC member Qatar is marketing rebel oil and rebels have received some payments through a Qatari trust fund.

In the weeks since the rebels’ initial oil sale there have been very few, if any, copy-cat deals; a fact that won’t be missed by investors mulling future projects.

Even if western capitals give a nod to doing business with the rebels, market players will be wary without clear guidance from the UN sanctions committee.

Vitol rival Trafigura expressed interest in early April in exporting oil from the eastern towns of Benghazi or Tobruk but has so far held off, traders say. The firm declined official comment. Even Vitol, which, like other oil trading firms tends to have a greater appetite for risk than big oil companies and banks, may be deterred from further shipments, traders and analysts say.

“The irony is that the Vitol transaction was aligned with what western powers wanted to achieve politically,” said a western diplomatic source, who declined to be named because he is not allowed to speak to the media.

“Because of the complexity of sanctions on the EU, UN and U.S. levels, it meant the company, which wanted to support the political cause, was doing it without any political cover and support.”

“PROVING A NEGATIVE”

It doesn’t take long to see why dealing with Agoco could be dangerous. The rebel-held firm is so bound up with the sanctions-listed Libya’s National Oil Company that international lawyers say it would be a struggle to prove the connection had been truly severed.

Not only was Agoco formerly a subsidiary of Gaddafi’s National Oil Company, many of its senior executives have worked at both. The original U.S. sanctions list even included Agoco. Despite a subsequent clarification that crude oil sales by rebels will not be subject to sanctions if completed outside of the NOC or any other entity connected to Gaddafi’s regime, legal experts worry that a deal with Agoco might still breach sanctions.

“It’s difficult to prove a negative. You need to prove that you had no cause to suspect that the party involved is owned or controlled by the Gaddafi regime and, in the case of the UK, getting it wrong is backed by criminal penalties,” said Susannah Cogman, partner in the corporate crime and investigations team of law firm Herbert Smith.

It’s a similar story with UN sanctions. The United Nations never had any intention of imposing an Iraq-style oil embargo on Libya. But diplomats from Security Council member states have told Reuters a de facto oil embargo has emerged anyway, because companies are worried about what would be legal.

The best way to deal with the situation would be to use the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee to clarify which firms are allowed to export or import oil. But a political deadlock on the UNSC caused by China and Russia’s doubts about the bombing campaign has made agreement on changes to the sanctions harder to reach, diplomats close to it told Reuters.

It’s not just a firm buying the crude that should be worried, lawyers say. If there is any doubt about the legal status of a cargo, this could apply all the way down the supply chain until the oil is converted into fuels.

“Is it Agoco’s oil? What happens if the rebels lose and the National Oil Company goes after the ‘stolen’ oil? If, say, (Italian oil firm) Eni buys a cargo, and the rebels lose, what’s the chance that they get kicked out of Libya forever? It’s a real can of worms,” said a European crude oil trader, who asked not to be named because of company policy.

LOOPHOLES

The worries in the rebel-held east of the country are echoed in the Gaddafi-controlled west. The naval blockade and the sanctions have so far mostly stopped the Gaddafi regime selling oil. Only Eni, with a more than 10 percent stake in Libyan oil fields, has publicly said it was trying to export oil from its own fields in Libya, although industry sources said only one of two planned cargoes has made it.

Despite the blockade, military and oil analysts think the regime can survive for months. Gaddafi’s biggest immediate need is for fuel to continue the war effort and the pounding of Misrata. In particular, gasoline has become a precious commodity as government forces have ditched easy-to-spot tanks for four-by-fours.

Reuters revealed in late April that Gaddafi’s government had imported gasoline to western Libya using previously unknown middle-men who transfer the fuel between ships in Tunisia. Trade sources say fuels are also being smuggled over the border with Tunisia. In March, residents reported long lines and even gunfights at petrol stations as people tried to stock up, but the supply situation has since improved.

Analysts expect western governments to tighten sanctions to address these issues. “The reality is Gaddafi is still terrorizing the population and still not meeting the demands of the UN, so the West and especially Britain and France, see sanctions as a way of continuing the fight,” said Charles Gurdon, managing director of London-based political risk consultancy Menas Associates.

The western diplomatic source said European countries are mulling tighter sanctions against the Gaddafi government, including a fuel embargo. These could work much like those imposed on Iran’s oil industry in the middle of 2010. Those measures have drastically reduced the number of gasoline suppliers into Iran.

“It would be a logical next step to create a fuels embargo and it’s a little surprising they haven’t done this already... It would severely restrict the ability to get fuels for the war machine itself,” said Saket Vemprala, analyst at Business Monitor International.

If the military stalemate persists and a de facto border is drawn through the Sahara, it may also be possible to implement sanctions on a regional basis, lawyers say.

The “border” might be drawn along similar lines as the colonial borders which once split the western regions of Tripolitania and Fezzan from the eastern region of Cyrenaica.

“One option is dividing up the country by making sanctions territorial and putting an embargo on all of west Libya ... The advantage would be preventing authorities from having to establish that entities in the west are controlled by the Gaddafi regime,” said Harry Clark, partner at New York-based law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf, who specializes in trade and investment rules.

The United Nations has previously used targeted territorial sanctions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and more recently against parts of Sudan.

In theory, the source of oil could then be easily identified by chemical analysis. This would allow for a “vetting scheme” similar to the Kimberley Process which is used to identify “blood diamonds”. Some Libyan grades should be easily identified, though the regional origin of oil pumped from deep in the desert, such as that from the Sirte Basin which holds 80 percent of the country’s proven reserves, will be hard to prove as it can flow both east and west.

As the Equator shows, though, the debate is dizzyingly complex. Experts say policymakers, including UN sanctions committees, may lack the political will to address the issue at all. That bodes badly for the rebels, and could hurt their chances for victory. (Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau and Joshua Schneyer in New York, Jessica Donati and Dmitry Zhdnannikov in London, Randy Fabi and in Singapore and Judy Hua in Beijing; Editing by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith)

Even if western capitals give a nod to doing business with the rebels, market players will be wary without clear guidance from the UN sanctions committee.

Vitol rival Trafigura expressed interest in early April in exporting oil from the eastern towns of Benghazi or Tobruk but has so far held off, traders say. The firm declined official comment. Even Vitol, which, like other oil trading firms tends to have a greater appetite for risk than big oil companies and banks, may be deterred from further shipments, traders and analysts say.

“The irony is that the Vitol transaction was aligned with what western powers wanted to achieve politically,” said a western diplomatic source, who declined to be named because he is not allowed to speak to the media.

“Because of the complexity of sanctions on the EU, UN and U.S. levels, it meant the company, which wanted to support the political cause, was doing it without any political cover and support.”

“PROVING A NEGATIVE”

It doesn’t take long to see why dealing with Agoco could be dangerous. The rebel-held firm is so bound up with the sanctions-listed Libya’s National Oil Company that international lawyers say it would be a struggle to prove the connection had been truly severed.

Not only was Agoco formerly a subsidiary of Gaddafi’s National Oil Company, many of its senior executives have worked at both. The original U.S. sanctions list even included Agoco. Despite a subsequent clarification that crude oil sales by rebels will not be subject to sanctions if completed outside of the NOC or any other entity connected to Gaddafi’s regime, legal experts worry that a deal with Agoco might still breach sanctions.

“It’s difficult to prove a negative. You need to prove that you had no cause to suspect that the party involved is owned or controlled by the Gaddafi regime and, in the case of the UK, getting it wrong is backed by criminal penalties,” said Susannah Cogman, partner in the corporate crime and investigations team of law firm Herbert Smith.

It’s a similar story with UN sanctions. The United Nations never had any intention of imposing an Iraq-style oil embargo on Libya. But diplomats from Security Council member states have told Reuters a de facto oil embargo has emerged anyway, because companies are worried about what would be legal.

The best way to deal with the situation would be to use the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee to clarify which firms are allowed to export or import oil. But a political deadlock on the UNSC caused by China and Russia’s doubts about the bombing campaign has made agreement on changes to the sanctions harder to reach, diplomats close to it told Reuters.

It’s not just a firm buying the crude that should be worried, lawyers say. If there is any doubt about the legal status of a cargo, this could apply all the way down the supply chain until the oil is converted into fuels.

“Is it Agoco’s oil? What happens if the rebels lose and the National Oil Company goes after the ‘stolen’ oil? If, say, (Italian oil firm) Eni buys a cargo, and the rebels lose, what’s the chance that they get kicked out of Libya forever? It’s a real can of worms,” said a European crude oil trader, who asked not to be named because of company policy.

LOOPHOLES

The worries in the rebel-held east of the country are echoed in the Gaddafi-controlled west. The naval blockade and the sanctions have so far mostly stopped the Gaddafi regime selling oil. Only Eni, with a more than 10 percent stake in Libyan oil fields, has publicly said it was trying to export oil from its own fields in Libya, although industry sources said only one of two planned cargoes has made it.

Despite the blockade, military and oil analysts think the regime can survive for months. Gaddafi’s biggest immediate need is for fuel to continue the war effort and the pounding of Misrata. In particular, gasoline has become a precious commodity as government forces have ditched easy-to-spot tanks for four-by-fours.

Reuters revealed in late April that Gaddafi’s government had imported gasoline to western Libya using previously unknown middle-men who transfer the fuel between ships in Tunisia. Trade sources say fuels are also being smuggled over the border with Tunisia. In March, residents reported long lines and even gunfights at petrol stations as people tried to stock up, but the supply situation has since improved.

Analysts expect western governments to tighten sanctions to address these issues. “The reality is Gaddafi is still terrorizing the population and still not meeting the demands of the UN, so the West and especially Britain and France, see sanctions as a way of continuing the fight,” said Charles Gurdon, managing director of London-based political risk consultancy Menas Associates.

The western diplomatic source said European countries are mulling tighter sanctions against the Gaddafi government, including a fuel embargo. These could work much like those imposed on Iran’s oil industry in the middle of 2010. Those measures have drastically reduced the number of gasoline suppliers into Iran.

“It would be a logical next step to create a fuels embargo and it’s a little surprising they haven’t done this already... It would severely restrict the ability to get fuels for the war machine itself,” said Saket Vemprala, analyst at Business Monitor International.

If the military stalemate persists and a de facto border is drawn through the Sahara, it may also be possible to implement sanctions on a regional basis, lawyers say.

The “border” might be drawn along similar lines as the colonial borders which once split the western regions of Tripolitania and Fezzan from the eastern region of Cyrenaica.

“One option is dividing up the country by making sanctions territorial and putting an embargo on all of west Libya ... The advantage would be preventing authorities from having to establish that entities in the west are controlled by the Gaddafi regime,” said Harry Clark, partner at New York-based law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf, who specializes in trade and investment rules.

The United Nations has previously used targeted territorial sanctions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and more recently against parts of Sudan.

In theory, the source of oil could then be easily identified by chemical analysis. This would allow for a “vetting scheme” similar to the Kimberley Process which is used to identify “blood diamonds”. Some Libyan grades should be easily identified, though the regional origin of oil pumped from deep in the desert, such as that from the Sirte Basin which holds 80 percent of the country’s proven reserves, will be hard to prove as it can flow both east and west.

As the Equator shows, though, the debate is dizzyingly complex. Experts say policymakers, including UN sanctions committees, may lack the political will to address the issue at all. That bodes badly for the rebels, and could hurt their chances for victory.

Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau and Joshua Schneyer in New York, Jessica Donati and Dmitry Zhdnannikov in London, Randy Fabi and in Singapore and Judy Hua in Beijing; Editing by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith

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