Russian and Chinese tankers are carrying out high risk ship-to-ship crude oil transfers at a newly established spot in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it has been revealed.
Analysis has tracked at least a dozen tankers involved in transferring or receiving crude oil of Russian origin, which then set sail for destinations in Asia, particularly China.
The transfers, which are taking place about 1,480 kilometres off the Portuguese coast, have raised concerns of an accident at sea with economic or ecological implications.
The research was carried out by the Lloyd's List, a long-running shipping journal that provides insight into maritime and associated data from around the globe. It says that the ship-to-ship transfer hub represents a case of owners taking "big risks for big money".
Experts believe mid-Atlantic ship-to-ship transfers would pose a major logistical challenge to crew members and jeopardise their safety at sea. Such transactions could also allow for the trading of oil from blacklisted nations.
At the core of the operation is a cluster of five Chinese-owned boats, which were set up under separate company names but registered at the same address.
The Lloyd's report says Russian energy giants Gazprom and Lukoil have chartered most of the outbound ships which load from Baltic and Black sea ports, including Primorsk and Ust-Luga.
The report claims an additional 12 tankers may have been involved in the operation, but cannot be traced as their identification systems were switched off.
Alex Glykas from Dynamarine says the practice has never been seen before in the Atlantic, in part because a smooth transfer relies on the weather being "ideal", an infrequent scenario in the area.
He says ships taking part in this kind of practice could easily be damaged, potentially leading to oil spills.
“The way that the industry has been structured, it assists opportunities because there is no proper surveillance, it’s as simple as that," he said. "Shipowners who want to take big risks, they make big money and there are traders that support them.”
Lloyd's List claims the practice is carried out in combination with a series of other "deceptive shipping practices", which are designed to "obfuscate the origin and destination of the cargo, as well as the ownership and identify of any vessels involved".
The journal says there already about 200 ageing oil tankers in the oceans which are involved in shipping 1.2 million barrels per day from countries under sanction, including Iran and Venezuela.
The transfers allow traders to mix their load with other crude oil types which can lead to false claims that a cargo on board could be, for example, 'Malaysian Blend' to circumvent sanctions.