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.
Mapped: Every Power Plant in the United States
What sources of power are closest to you, and how has this mix changed over the last 10 years? See every power plant in the U.S. on this handy map.
This Map Shows Every Power Plant in the United States
Every year, the United States generates 4,000 million MWh of electricity from utility-scale sources.
While the majority comes from fossil fuels like natural gas (32.1%) and coal (29.9%), there are also many other minor sources that feed into the grid, ranging from biomass to geothermal.
Do you know where your electricity comes from?
The Big Picture View
Today’s series of maps come from Weber State University, and they use information from the EPA’s eGRID databases to show every utility-scale power plant in the country.
Use the white slider in the middle below to see how things have changed between 2007 and 2016:
The biggest difference between the two maps is the reduced role of coal, which is no longer the most dominant energy source in the country. You can also see many smaller-scale wind and solar dots appear throughout the appropriate regions.
Here’s a similar look at how the energy mix has changed in the United States over the last 70 years:
Up until the 21st century, power almost always came from fossil fuels, nuclear, or hydro sources. More recently, we can see different streams of renewables making a dent in the mix.
Maps by Source
Now let’s look at how these maps look by individual sources to see regional differences more clearly.
Here’s the map only showing fossil fuels.
The two most prominent sources are coal (black) and natural gas (orange), and they combine to make up about 60% of total annual net generation.
Now here’s just nuclear on the map:
Nuclear is pretty uncommon on the western half of the country, but on the Eastern Seaboard and in the Midwest, it is a major power source. All in all, it makes up about 20% of the annual net generation mix.
Finally, a look at renewable energy:
Hydro (dark blue), wind (light blue), solar (yellow), biomass (brown), and geothermal (green) all appear here.
Aside from a few massive hydro installations – such as the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State (19 million MWh per year) – most renewable installations are on a smaller scale.
Generally speaking, renewable sources are also more dependent on geography. You can’t put geothermal in an area where there is no thermal energy in the ground, or wind where there is mostly calm weather. For this reason, the dispersion of green sources around the country is also quite interesting to look at.
See all of the above, as well as Hawaii and Alaska, in an interactive map here.
The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns
This unique chart shows the performance of individual commodities over the last decade – see commodity returns in 2018, and how they compared to previous years.
Periodic Table of Commodity Returns (2019 Edition)
Commodities are an interesting asset class to watch.
In certain years, all commodities will move in price together in an obvious and correlated fashion. This is a representation of the cyclical characteristics of commodity markets, in which macroeconomic factors align to create a tide that lifts or sinks all boats.
At the same time, however, each individual commodity is incredibly unique with its own specific set of supply and demand circumstances. In the years when these supply or demand crunches materialize, a certain commodity can surge or crash in price, separating itself from the rest of the pack.
A Decade of Commodity Returns
Today’s visualization comes to us from our friends at U.S. Global Investors, and it tracks commodity returns over the last decade.
More specifically, it takes a closer look at individual commodities (i.e. corn, gold, oil, zinc) to show how performance can vary over time. With a quick examination of the graphic, you can see years where commodities moved together – and some years where individual commodities stole the show unexpectedly.
Palladium: A Perennial Winner
The best performing commodity in 2018 was palladium, which found itself up 18.6% – just enough to edge out corn, which jumped up 17.9% in price last year.
Interestingly, palladium has also been the best performing commodity over the 10-year period as well:
Palladium has finished in first place in four of the last 10 years, including in 2017 and 2018 – it’s also impressive to note that palladium has only had negative returns twice in the last decade (2011, 2015).
A Crude Awakening
The worst performing commodity in 2018 was crude oil, which fell -24.8% in price.
Like palladium, this wasn’t a unique occurrence: crude has actually been the worst performing commodity investment over the last decade:
As you can see, crude oil has been the worst (or second worst) commodity in three of the last five years.
Further, as our chart on how all assets performed in 2018 shows, crude oil was outperformed by every other asset class, and the energy sector had the poorest performance out of all S&P 500 sectors last year.
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