Oil theft 'provides billions for terrorists and drug cartels'

Oil theft is fuelling terrorist groups and drug cartels around the world, according to a new analysis.

Mexican drug gangs can earn $90,000 (£72,000) in seven minutes from tapping a pipeline of refined oil, while insurgents in Nigeria financially benefit from a share of the third of the country’s refined oil exports that is lost to theft, said the Atlantic Council.

The Washington DC-based thinktank, which mapped the scale of crime in the oil refining and processing end of the sector, said the issue had largely been ignored by authorities and law enforcement agencies so far.

“This has been an invisible issue for many years, people do not recognise downstream oil theft as a problem. It’s a multibillion-dollar thing that affects many people all over the world,” said Ian M Ralby, the author of the analysis, which follows up on a study published in January.

“These are global concerns because they affect the global economy and they affect global security,” he added. The crimes take many forms, from straightforward theft from pipelines to smuggling to avoid taxes.

Donkeys laden with jerry cans are used to smuggle oil across the closed border between oil-rich Algeria and Morocco. As a result an estimated 660,000 cars in Morocco and Tunisia run on fuel smuggled from Algeria, and border cities have sprung up to provide a property market to launder some of the funds. “Many, many drops start to flood a house,” said Ralby of the cumulative impact.

Along with Nigeria, Mexico is one of the biggest oil theft hotspots, where an estimated $1bn of oil is stolen each year, with the Zetas cartel controlling nearly 40% of that market alone. Drug barons tapping pipelines in Mexico are also known to leave them open afterwards for farmers to win support.

Europe is not exempt from the problem, with the analysis finding the EU lost about €4bn (£3.5bn) in hydrocarbon revenues in 2012. Ralby said a huge industry was taking shape in which refined crude from Libya, which has Africa’s largest oil reserves, was being illegally transferred ship-to-ship in the Mediterranean and passed off as legitimate oil imports to the EU.

“We were somewhat surprised to see the extent of ongoing criminality within the EU. Many people believe this is [just] a developing state phenomenon,” said Ralby.

Part of the reason the crimes are not being tackled is that in many cases those who are meant to be stopping oil theft are sometimes involved – regulators can be perpetrators, and police can be facilitators. Another factor is that oil theft is sometimes seen as benign.

“In some cases you have a Robin Hood dynamic. You have drug cartels stealing oil from a state-owned oil company and selling it at a discount to the poor. And in some cases, yes, you have criminality that aids the energy poor, but at what cost, at what consequence?” said Ralby.

That cost comes in direct economic losses to the energy industry and governments, the environmental impact of spilled oil and in the instability caused by oil money reaching terrorist groups and insurgents such as Nigeria’s Niger Delta Avengers, according to the analysis.

Ralby said there are affordable and easy “quick wins” to stem downstream oil theft. The Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center proposed molecular marking, where criminals cannot see that fuel is marked but authorities can test to see if it is illegitimate, and better tracking of oil tanker trucks.

Separately on Tuesday, the credit rating agency Moody’s said the oil price recovery in recent months had led it to upgrade the outlook for the major oil and gas companies from “stable” to “positive”. It is the first time the majors have been classed as “positive” since November 2014.

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