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.
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 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.
All the World’s Coal Power Plants in One Map
Today’s interactive map shows all of the world’s coal power plants, plotted by capacity and carbon emissions from 2000 until 2018.
All The World’s Coal Power Plants in One Map
The use of coal for fuel dates back thousands of years.
Demand for the energy source really started to soar during the Industrial Revolution, and it continues to power some of the world’s largest economies today. However, as the clean energy revolution heats up, will coal continue to be a viable option?
Today’s data visualization from Carbon Brief maps the changing number of global coal power plants operating between 2000 and 2018. The interactive timeline pulls from the Global Coal Plant Tracker’s latest data and features around 10,000 retired, operating, and planned coal units, totaling close to 3,000 gigawatts (GW) of capacity across 95 countries.
On the map, each circular icon’s size represents each plant’s coal capacity in megawatts (MW). The data also highlights the type of coal burned and the CO₂ emissions produced as a result.
A Precarious Power Source
Throughout its history, coal has been used for everything from domestic heating and steel manufacturing, to railways, gas works, and electricity. The fuel played a pivotal role in powering economic development, and had a promising future with a flurry of plant openings.
However, in 2016, coal output dropped by 231 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe). Combined with a rapid slowdown of new plants being built, total coal units operating around the world fell for the first time in 2018.
With the remaining fleet of plants operating fewer hours than ever, plant closures have been triggered in South Africa, India, and China—steadily eroding coal’s bottom line. Industry trends have also forced a wave of coal companies to recently declare bankruptcy, including giants such as Peabody Energy and Alpha Natural.
Can Coal Compete with Clean Energy?
Today, coal is experiencing fierce competition from low-priced natural gas and ever-cheaper renewable power—most notably from wind and solar. Further, solar power costs will continue to decline each year and be cut in half by 2020, relative to 2015 figures.
Natural gas surpassed coal as America’s #1 power source in 2016, with the total share of power generated from coal tumbling from 45% in 2010 to 28% in 2018. By next year, the role of coal is expected to be further reduced to 24% of the mix.
On the interactive visualization, the decline of coal is especially evident in 2018 as plant closures sweep across the map. The chart shows how several countries, notably China and India, have been closing many hundreds of smaller, older, and less efficient units, but replacing them with larger and more efficient models.
As of today, China retains the largest fleet of coal plants, consuming a staggering 45% of the world’s coal.
Use the above slider to see the difference between China’s coal plants in 2000 with projected future capacity.
Towards a New Reality
Coal is the most carbon intensive fossil fuel, and for every tonne of coal burned there are approximately 2.5 tonnes of carbon emissions. The International Energy Agency states that all unabated coal must be phased out within a few decades if global warming is to be limited.
Despite these warnings, global coal demand is set to remain stable for the next five years, with declines in the U.S. and Europe offset by immediate growth in India and China. The latter are the main players in the global coal market, but will eventually see a gradual decline in demand as they move away from industrialization.
A total phaseout of unabated coal is planned by 14 of the world’s 78 coal-powered countries, with many of these countries working to convert coal capacity to natural gas.
As the price of premium solar generation drops steadily, and innovation in renewable energy technology becomes more prominent, the world is shifting its attention to a clean energy economy. A global revival of coal looks less and less likely—and the fossil fuel might very well one day become obsolete.
Editor’s Note: The map uses WebGL and will not work on some older browsers. The map may also fail to load if you are using an ad-blocking browser plugin.
What is a Commodity Super Cycle?
The prices of energy, agriculture, livestock and metals tell the story of human development. Learn about the commodity super cycle in this infographic.
Visualizing the Commodity Super Cycle
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the world has seen its population and the need for natural resources boom.
As more people and wealth translate into the demand for global goods, the prices of commodities—such as energy, agriculture, livestock, and metals—have often followed in sync.
This cycle, which tends to coincide with extended periods of industrialization and modernization, helps in telling a story of human development.
Why are Commodity Prices Cyclical?
Commodity prices go through extended periods during which prices are well above or below their long-term price trend. There are two types of swings in commodity prices: upswings and downswings.
Many economists believe that the upswing phase in super cycles results from a lag between unexpected, persistent, and positive trends to support commodity demand with slow-moving supply, such as the building of a new mine or planting a new crop. Eventually, as adequate supply becomes available and demand growth slows, the cycle enters a downswing phase.
While individual commodity groups have their own price patterns, when charted together they form extended periods of price trends known as “Commodity Super Cycles” where there is a recognizable pattern across major commodity groups.
How can a Commodity Super Cycle be Identified?
Commodity super cycles are different from immediate supply disruptions; high or low prices persist over time.
In our above chart, we used data from the Bank of Canada, who leveraged a statistical technique called an asymmetric band pass filter. This is a calculation that can identify the patterns or frequencies of events in sets of data.
Economists at the Bank of Canada employed this technique using their Commodity Price Index (BCPI) to search for evidence of super cycles. This is an index of the spot or transaction prices in U.S. dollars of 26 commodities produced in Canada and sold to world markets.
- Energy: Coal, Oil, Natural Gas
- Metals and Minerals: Gold, Silver, Nickel, Copper, Aluminum, Zinc, Potash, Lead, Iron
- Forestry: Pulp, Lumber, Newsprint
- Agriculture: Potatoes, Cattle, Hogs, Wheat, Barley, Canola, Corn
- Fisheries: Finfish, Shellfish
Using the band pass filter and the BCPI data, the chart indicates that there are four distinct commodity price super cycles since 1899.
The first cycle coincides with the industrialization of the United States in the late 19th century.
The second began with the onset of global rearmament before the Second World War in the 1930s.
The third began with the reindustrialization of Europe and Japan in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
- 1996 – Present:
The fourth began in the mid to late 1990s with the rapid industrialization of China
What Causes Commodity Cycles?
The rapid industrialization and growth of a nation or region are the main drivers of these commodity super cycles.
From the rapid industrialization of America emerging as a world power at the beginning of the 20th century, to the ascent of China at the beginning of the 21st century, these historical periods of growth and industrialization drive new demand for commodities.
Because there is often a lag in supply coming online, prices have nowhere to go but above long-term trend lines. Then, prices cannot subside until supply is overshot, or growth slows down.
Is This the Beginning of a New Super Cycle?
The evidence suggests that human industrialization drives commodity prices into cycles. However, past growth was asymmetric around the world with different countries taking the lion’s share of commodities at different times.
With more and more parts of the world experiencing growth simultaneously, demand for commodities is not isolated to a few nations.
Confined to Earth, we could possibly be entering an era where commodities could perpetually be scarce and valuable, breaking the cycles and giving power to nations with the greatest access to resources.
Each commodity has its own story, but together, they show the arc of human development.
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