June 30, 2023 [FINANCIAL TIMES]- Vitol and Gunvor, two of the world’s largest independent energy traders, remain significant buyers of refined oil from Russia more than a year after both companies pledged to drastically reduce their business with Moscow following President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Analysis of export records filed with Russian customs in the first four months of 2023 show that both companies were among the top-10 buyers of refined products, such as petrol and diesel.
Switzerland-headquartered Gunvor was the eighth-largest buyer by value, shipping 1mn tonnes of petroleum products worth about $540mn, according to the data reviewed by the Financial Times. Vitol, whose top executives largely sit in London and Geneva, was the 10th-largest buyer, shipping about 600,000 tonnes worth about $400mn, according to the data.
Both companies confirmed they were regular buyers of Russian refined fuels but disputed the accuracy of the data.
Trading in Russian refined fuels is not prohibited by western sanctions and has even been encouraged by Washington to limit supply disruptions, as long as traders comply with western restrictions imposed since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Punitive measures include the G7 price cap introduced in February this year that seeks to limit the price Moscow gets for its refined oil products.
However, the challenge of complying with the price caps, combined with the reputational risk in Europe of continuing to trade with Russia, has led many European traders, including BP and Shell, to cease dealing with Russian flows entirely. Vitol and Gunvor have stopped dealing in Russian crude oil.
Jean-François Lambert, a consultant in the commodity trading industry, said there were questions about why the trading houses were keen to maintain the shrunken business.
“If this is no longer a material part of their business then why take on the reputational risk?” said Lambert, who once worked in commodity trade finance. “It may be profitable in the short term but there are questions over just how sensible it is.”
Exporters’ customs declarations have been one of the last remaining tools for analysing Russian trade flows after Moscow stopped publishing its aggregated customs statistics last year. They shine a light on some of the steps international trading houses have taken to remain involved in the lucrative refined oil market. In total, 50 companies exported a combined $16bn worth of refined petroleum from Russia over the first four months of this year, the data shows.
Gunvor said its own records showed it had purchased just over 700,000 tonnes in the period with a value of about $330mn. Vitol said the customs declarations did not match its internal figures but declined to provide its own data. It reiterated a comment from chief executive Russell Hardy in March that it was trading “less than 100,000 barrels a day” — suggesting a maximum of about 1.5mn tonnes over four months.
The customs records show that Gunvor and Vitol are the only western-owned companies still among the top-10 buyers of Russian refined petroleum. The other eight largest buyers are a mixture of Russian-controlled traders and recently established entities in the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong or Singapore.
12,600 tank storage and production facilities as per the date of this article. Click on the button and register to get instant access to actionable tank storage industry data