A small oil facility off the coast of Africa appears to be sending lots of crude to Europe, raising questions by Nigerian and U.S. authorities about whether some of it is pilfered Nigerian crude that they say is increasingly making it to global markets.
Ghana’s government inaugurated the Saltpond platform back in 1978 to pump oil from an offshore field. In its heyday, the field, located seven miles off the country’s coast, produced more than a million barrels a year. That has dwindled to just over 100,000 barrels over the course of 2013, according to Ghana’s finance ministry.
But since last August, three tankers picked up more than 470,000 barrels from Saltpond, transporting it to an Italian refinery near the port of Genoa, according to port officials, ship-tracking services and port records.
All the activity at Saltpond has ratcheted up scrutiny of the facility—which also includes a storage tanker—and its possible role in the market for stolen Nigerian crude. For years, Western companies operating in Nigeria, like Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Chevron Corp., have lost millions of dollars a month to bandits who tap onshore oil pipelines and siphon off crude.
Some U.S. and Nigerian officials suspect Saltpond is one of several destinations that smugglers use to transship stolen Nigerian crude, effectively laundering it by making it appear to come from a legitimate source outside of Nigeria.
The platform’s operator, which denies wrongdoing, and Nigerian officials say the facility has a legitimate contract with Nigerian authorities to transship oil that the country’s law-enforcement officials have confiscated. But those volumes are small, according to the Nigerian government, raising questions about the origins of the rest of the oil the platform has loaded onto ships. The Saltpond platform, meanwhile, has been a destination for at least one vessel connected to Nigerian oil theft, according to ship-tracking services.
In recent years, executives and officials estimate that as much as 80% of Nigeria’s stolen oil is being shipped out of the country in small tankers. Where it goes, though, has long been a mystery.
“Tankers often will come twice a week to load [stolen oil in Nigeria] and will go abroad,” a senior U.S. official familiar with the issue said, referring to international smuggling and not to Saltpond. “But it’s extremely difficult to investigate the final destination.”
U.S. officials said Washington is probing Saltpond as part of a broader inquiry into how Nigerian oil gets stolen and laundered. Washington has in recent years strengthened ties with Nigeria—Africa’s biggest economy and one of the world’s biggest oil exporters—and has set up a working group to liaise with Nigerian officials to help curb the smuggling.
Emmanuel Oware, general manager of Petro-Marine Consult Ltd., which specializes in ship cargo inspections and is based in Tema, Ghana, said small vessels that have loaded what he called “unofficial” oil in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta frequently come to discharge at Saltpond. There, the Nigerian crude is mixed with Ghanaian oil, he said.
“It comes from Nigeria, but it gets a certificate of Ghana origin,” he said.
The oil is then transferred to larger tankers, according to Mr. Oware, who said he inspected a transshipment at Saltpond last year.
The majority owner of the Saltpond platform, Lushann International Energy Corp., a private company based in Houston, doesn’t dispute that some of the oil it loads onto tankers comes from Nigeria. But Lushann’s owner said the company purchases the crude legally from Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the authority with primary responsibility for cracking down on oil smuggling.
The company says the EFCC sells crude that it seizes in its pursuit of oil theft. “The only crude we take from Nigeria…has been seized by the government,” said Quincy Sintim, Lushann’s owner and president, in a telephone interview. “We have invoices that we pay to EFCC Nigeria.”
Mr. Sintim said Saltpond’s production had never been higher than 200,000 barrels a year since his company took over in 2000, and declined to comment further.
Jarrett Tenebe, the owner and head of Fenix Impex Nig Ltd., a Nigerian oil-trading firm, said he had been selling confiscated Nigerian crude oil to Saltpond on behalf of the oil ministry, but said the quantities were small.
Dorothy Bassey, head of public affairs at Nigeria’s department of petroleum resources—the oil ministry’s regulatory body—said Fenix only loaded “about 2,000 barrels” of confiscated crude oil since late 2012. It is unclear how much of that was sold to Saltpond.
Fenix is Saltpond’s only provider of EFCC-confiscated crude, according to Mr. Sintim.
The provenance of the other oil that made its way to an Italian refinery over the course of the past year, however, isn’t clear. Three cargoes, listed in shipping documents as “Saltpond blend crude oil,” went to Genoa’s terminal for delivery to Italy’s Iplom SpA refinery, according to shipping and port records and officials.
Two cargoes, unloaded in August 2013 and February 2014, carried about 340,000 barrels altogether, according to Genoa port officials. The third tanker, unloaded on April of this year, carried 132,000 barrels. Together, that’s more than four times the platform’s 2013 output of around 100,000 barrels, according to the Ghana government figures.
Giorgio Profumo, Iplom’s president, confirmed his refinery had received crude labeled as coming from Saltpond but said he believed the cargoes were legitimate because they are approved by the Ghana authorities.
Ghana’s customs and petroleum regulator didn’t return an emailed request for comment and couldn’t be reached over the phone.
Saltpond, meanwhile, has been a frequent port of call for at least one vessel connected with Nigerian oil smuggling. The Akshay is a tanker co-owned by Ajay Bhatia, an Indian national who was sentenced in an Nigerian court in May in absentia to 15 years in jail for oil theft. The Akshay traveled three times between Nigeria and Saltpond in the four months before the ship’s seizure by the Nigerian navy, for allegedly carrying stolen crude, in November 2012, according to shipping tracker service IHS Fairplay.
Two other vessels partly owned by Mr. Bhatia also travel frequently from Nigeria to Saltpond, according to vessel database FleetMon.com and to some of the ships’ crew members.
Asked about the Akshay and other vessels co-owned by Mr. Bathia, Mr. Sintim said he would look into those tankers’ activity at Saltpond but didn’t respond when contacted again.
A lawyer for Mr. Bhatia declined to comment. Mr. Bhatia didn’t respond to numerous calls, text messages and emails.
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