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Ageing shadow fleet carrying Russian oil poses disaster risk: Report

The aftermath of European Union sanctions on Russia mean that the Turba has been enlisted into a vast shadow fleet carrying Moscow's oil around the globe


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The oil tanker Turba normally should have been melted down by now.  The 26-year-old vessel hasn’t had a full inspection since 2017, according to a database dedicated to promoting safe shipping. It also lacks industry standard insurance and sails under the flag of country with a poor standing for the oversight of maritime safety. 

But rather than being steered onto a beach in Bangladesh, India or Pakistan for dismantling, the 1997-built tanker is collecting heavy fuel at the Russian port of St Petersburg. 

The aftermath of European Union sanctions on Russia mean that the Turba has been enlisted into a vast shadow fleet carrying Moscow’s oil around the globe. Its continued operation is a stark reminder that Group of Seven sanctions on Moscow carry an environmental risk. The big concern is that some older vessels — the global fleet is now the oldest in almost two decades — may not be properly inspected and maintained, leading to a catastrophic accident at sea. 

“They’re an environmental disaster waiting to happen,” said Lars Barstad, chief executive officer of the management unit of Frontline, one of the largest owners of supertankers.

In normal times, owners start to consider demolishing tankers when they’re about 15 years old. By year 20, the ships’ fate — to be sold for scrap — is usually sealed.

Right now, though, shipowners are squeezing a few more years out because there’s money to be made. The sanctions imposed  on December 5 are forcing vessels to sail thousands of miles further, boosting demand and freight rates.


At least 40 vessels hauling Russian oil to China and India between early December and early February lacked insurance from members of the International Group of P&I clubs or routine safety-management certificates, according to data from Equasis, the maritime safety database. Three, including the Turba, didn’t have something called classification that would demonstrate how seaworthy they are.

Some of the ageing ships are transferring their hazardous cargoes on the high seas, often in international waters off Greece or Africa.  “Tankers that should have been scrapped by now are doing loads of transfers of millions of barrels without proper insurance,” said Adi Imsirovic, director of the Surrey Clean Energy consultancy. 

Port authorities scrutinise older ships more closely. The increased expenses, and the lack of customers, would — in normal times — encourage owners to sell them for scrap.


Half-a-dozen tanker brokers and owners said they didn’t have a means to contact Scoot, which doesn’t appear on a Seychelles corporate register. 

Approval by a member of the International Association of Classification Societies — which the Turba lacks, according to Equasis — means an audited international body of surveyors will have checked a vessel to monitor that its hull is structurally sound, and its propulsion, steering and power systems are functional. 

The average age of the tanker fleet is now 12 years, according to data from Clarkson. Almost a third of vessels are older than 15, and the ranks of aging vessels is forecast to expand rapidly in coming years, said Svein Moxnes Harfjeld, CEO of DHT Holdings, an oil tanker firm.

Given the lack of clarity around ownership, it’s likely the new operators don’t have the same levels of experience and professionalism associated with the Russian fleet, Ben Luckock, co-head of oil trading at Trafigura, said.

Plan to place nuclear weapons in Belarus: Putin

Russia will station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday, sending a warning to Nato over its military support for Ukraine and escalating a standoff with the West.

Although not unexpected and while Putin said the move would not violate nuclear non-proliferation promises. US has reacted cautiously to Putin’s statement, with a senior official saying there were no signs Moscow planned to use its nuclear weapons.

Ukraine’s top security official on Sunday denounced the Kremlin’s plans to station tactical atomic weapons in Belarus, saying that Russia was taking its ally as a “nuclear hostage.” But Moscow said it was making the move in response to the West’s increasing military support for Ukraine.

Nato on Sunday criticised Russia for its “dangerous and irresponsible” nuclear rhetoric.

“Nato is vigilant, and we are closely monitoring the situation. We have not seen any changes in Russia’s nuclear posture that would lead us to adjust our own,” a Nato spokesperson said. “Russia’s reference to Nato’s nuclear sharing is totally misleading. Nato allies act with full respect of their international commitments. Russia has consistently broken its arms control commitments.”

EU stands ready to respond with further sanctions, EU foreign policy chief said on Sunday.

- Agencies

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First Published: Mar 26 2023 | 10:22 PM IST

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