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Crude Awakening: The Global Black Market for Oil

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A Crude Awakening: The Global Black Market for Oil

A Crude Awakening: The Global Black Market for Oil

The value of the crude oil production alone is worth a staggering $1.7 trillion each year. Add downstream fuels and other services to that, and oil is a money-making machine.

Both companies and governments take advantage of this resource wealth. More of the world’s largest companies work in the oil patch than any other industry. At the same, entire government regimes are kept intact thanks to oil revenues.

The only problem when an industry becomes this lucrative?

Eventually, everybody wants a piece of the pie – and they’ll do anything to get their share.

The Black Market in Fuel Theft

Today’s infographic comes from Eurocontrol Technics Group, and it highlights the global problem of fuel theft.

While pipeline theft in places like Nigeria and Mexico are the most famous images associated with the theft of hydrocarbons, the problem is actually far more broad and systematic in nature.

Fuel theft impacts operations at the upstream, midstream, and downstream levels, and it is so entrenched that even politicians, military personnel, and police are complicit in illegal activities. Sometimes, involvement can be traced all the way up to top government officials.

E&Y estimates this to be a $133 billion issue, but it’s also likely that numbers around fuel theft are understated due to deep-rooted corruption and government involvement.

How Fuel Theft Actually Happens

Billions of dollars per year of government and corporate revenues are lost due to the following activities:

Tapping Pipelines: By installing illicit taps, thieves can divert oil or other refined products from pipelines. Mexican drug gangs, for example, can earn $90,000 in just seven minutes from illegal pipeline tapping.

Illegal Bunkering: Oil acquired by thieves is pumped to small barges, which are then sent to sea to deliver the product to tankers. In Nigeria, for example, the Niger Delta’s infamous labyrinth of creeks is the perfect place for bunkering to go undetected.

Ship-to-Ship Transfers:
This involves the transfer of illegal fuel to a more reputable ship, which can be passed off as legitimate imports. For example, refined crude from Libya gets transferred from ship-to-ship in the middle of the Mediterranean, to be illegally imported into the EU.

Armed Theft (Piracy):
This involves using the threat of violence to command a truck or ship and steal its cargo. Even though Hollywood has made Somalia famous for its pirates, it is the Gulf of Guinea near Nigeria that ships need to be worried about. In the last few years, there have been hundreds of attacks.

Bribing Corrupt Officials:
In some countries – as long as the right person gets a cut of profits, authorities will turn a blind eye to hydrocarbon theft. In fact, E&Y says an astonishing 57.1% of all fraud in the oil an gas sector relates to corruption schemes.

Smuggling and Laundering:
Smuggling oil products into another jurisdiction can help to enable a profitable and less traceable sale. ISIS is famous for this – they can’t sell oil to international markets directly, so they smuggle oil to Turkey, where it sells it at a discount.

Adulteration:
Adulteration is a sneaky process in which unwanted additives are put in oil or refined products, but sold at full price. In Tanzania, for example, adding cheap kerosene and lubricants to gasoline or diesel is an easy way to increase profit margins, while remaining undetected.

The Implications of Fuel Theft

The impact of fuel theft on people and the economy is significant and wide-ranging:

Loss of corporate profits: Companies in oil and gas can lose billions of dollars from fuel theft. Case in point: Mexico’s national oil company (Pemex) is estimated to lose $1.3 billion per year as a result of illegal pipeline tapping by gangs.

Loss of government revenues: Governments receive royalties from oil production, as well as tax money from finished products like gasoline. In Ireland, the government claims it loses €150 to €250 million in revenues per year from fuel adulteration. Meanwhile, one World Bank official pegged the Nigerian government’s total losses from oil revenues stolen (or misspent) at $400 billion since 1960.

Funds terrorism: ISIS and other terrorist groups have used hydrocarbon theft and sales as a means to sustain operations. At one point, ISIS was making $50 million per month from selling oil.

Funds cartels and organized crime: The Zetas cartel in Mexico controls nearly 40% of the fuel theft market, raking in millions each year.

Environmental damage: Not only does fuel theft cost corporations and governments severely, but there is also an environmental impact to be considered. Fuel spills, blown pipelines, and engine damage (from adulterated fuel) are all huge issues.

Leads to higher gas prices: Unfortunately, all of the above losses eventually translate into higher prices for end-customers.

How to Stop Fuel Theft?

There are two methods that authorities have been using to slow down and eventually eliminate fuel theft.

Fuel dyes are used to color petroleum products a specific tint, so as to allow for easy identification and prevent fraud. However, some dyes can be replicated by criminals – such as those in Ireland who “launder” the fuel.

Molecular markers, which are used in tiny concentrations of just a few parts per million, are invisible and can also be used to identify fuels.

In Tanzania, the initiation of a fuel marking program using molecular markers led to significant increases of imported petrol and diesel for the local market, and a decrease of kerosene.

At the retail level, product meeting quality standards increased from 19% in 2007 to 91% in 2013. Ultimately, this resulted in an increase of tax revenue of $300 million between 2010 and 2014.

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Chart of the Week

Visualizing the Biggest Risks to the Global Economy in 2020

The Global Risk Report 2020 paints an unprecedented risk landscape for 2020—one dominated by climate change and other environmental concerns.

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Top Risks in 2020: Dominated by Environmental Factors

Environmental concerns are a frequent talking point drawn upon by politicians and scientists alike, and for good reason. Irrespective of economic or social status, climate change has the potential to affect us all.

While public urgency surrounding climate action has been growing, it can be difficult to comprehend the potential extent of economic disruption that environmental risks pose.

Front and Center

Today’s chart uses data from the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report, which surveyed 800 leaders from business, government, and non-profits to showcase the most prominent economic risks the world faces.

According to the data in the report, here are the top five risks to the global economy, in terms of their likelihood and potential impact:

Top Global Risks (by "Likelihood") Top Global Risks (by "Impact")
#1Extreme weather#1Climate action failure
#2Climate action failure#2Weapons of mass destruction
#3Natural disasters#3Biodiversity loss
#4Biodiversity loss#4Extreme weather
#5Humanmade environmental disasters#5Water crises

With more emphasis being placed on environmental risks, how much do we need to worry?

According to the World Economic Forum, more than we can imagine. The report asserts that, among many other things, natural disasters are becoming more intense and more frequent.

While it can be difficult to extrapolate precisely how environmental risks could cascade into trouble for the global economy and financial system, here are some interesting examples of how they are already affecting institutional investors and the insurance industry.

The Stranded Assets Dilemma

If the world is to stick to its 2°C global warming threshold, as outlined in the Paris Agreement, a significant amount of oil, gas, and coal reserves would need to be left untouched. These assets would become “stranded”, forfeiting roughly $1-4 trillion from the world economy.

Growing awareness of this risk has led to a change in sentiment. Many institutional investors have become wary of their portfolio exposures, and in some cases, have begun divesting from the sector entirely.

The financial case for fossil fuel divestment is strong. Fossil fuel companies once led the economy and world stock markets. They now lag.

– Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis

The last couple of years have been a game-changer for the industry’s future prospects. For example, 2018 was a milestone year in fossil fuel divestment:

  • Nearly 1,000 institutional investors representing $6.24 trillion in assets have pledged to divest from fossil fuels, up from just $52 billion four years ago;
  • Ireland became the first country to commit to fossil fuel divestment. At the time of announcement, its sovereign development fund had $10.4 billion in assets;
  • New York City became the largest (but not the first) city to commit to fossil fuel divestment. Its pension funds, totaling $189 billion at the time of announcement, aim to divest over a 5-year period.

A Tough Road Ahead

In a recent survey, actuaries ranked climate change as their top risk for 2019, ahead of damages from cyberattacks, financial instability, and terrorism—drawing strong parallels with the results of this year’s Global Risk Report.

These growing concerns are well-founded. 2017 was the costliest year on record for natural disasters, with $344 billion in global economic losses. This daunting figure translated to a record year for insured losses, totalling $140 billion.

Although insured losses over 2019 have fallen back in line with the average over the past 10 years, Munich RE believes that long-term environmental effects are already being felt:

  • Recent studies have shown that over the long term, the environmental conditions for bushfires in Australia have become more favorable;
  • Despite a decrease in U.S. wildfire losses compared to previous years, there is a rising long-term trend for forest area burned in the U.S.;
  • An increase in hailstorms, as a result of climate change, has been shown to contribute to growing losses across the globe.

The Ball Is In Our Court

It’s clear that the environmental issues we face are beginning to have a larger real impact. Despite growing awareness and preliminary actions such as fossil fuel divestment, the Global Risk Report stresses that there is much more work to be done to mitigate risks.

How companies and governments choose to respond over the next decade will be a focal point of many discussions to come.

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Energy

The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns

Which individual commodities were the best performers in 2019, and how do those numbers compare to the past decade of data?

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The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns 2019

In 2019, every major asset class finished in the black.

And although the broad commodity market finished up 17.6% on the year, the performances of individual commodities were all over the map. For those familiar with the sector, that’s pretty much par for the course.

That said, the lack of an obvious correlation in commodity markets also makes for a thought-provoking and humbling exercise: comparing the annual returns of commodities against the data from the past decade.

A Decade of Commodities (2010-2019)

Today’s visualization comes to us from U.S. Global Investors, and it compares individual commodity returns between 2010 and 2019.

You can use the interactive tool on their website to toggle between various settings for the table of commodity returns, such as breaking them down by category (i.e. energy, precious metals, etc.), by best and worst performers, or by volatility over the time period.

Let’s dive into the data to see what trends we can uncover.

Palladium: The Best Commodity, Three Years Straight

In 2019, palladium finished as the best performing commodity for the third straight year — this time, with a 54.2% return.

Palladium top performing commodity

You could have bought the precious metal for about $400/oz in early 2010, when it was a fraction of the price of either gold or platinum.

Nowadays, thanks to the metal’s ability to reduce harmful car emissions and an uncertain supply situation, palladium trades for above $2,000/oz — making it more expensive per ounce than both gold and platinum.

Oil and Gas: Opposite Ends of the Spectrum

As key energy commodities, oil and natural gas have an inherent connection to one another.

However, in 2019, the two commodities had completely diverging performances:

Palladium top performing commodity

Crude oil prices gained 34.5% on the year, making it one of the best commodities for investors — meanwhile, natural gas went the opposite direction, dropping 25.5% on the year. This actually cements gas as the worst performing major commodity of the decade.

“That’s Gold, Jerry!”

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that gold and silver had a bounceback year.

Gold gained 18.3% to finish with the best return the yellow metal has seen in a decade. Silver followed suit with a similar story, rallying 15.2% over the calendar year.

Gold and silver performance

Precious metals now sit at multi-year highs against an interesting economic and geopolitical backdrop to start 2020.

Where do you see the above commodities ending up on next year’s edition of the rankings?

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