Oil Piracy and Energy Security in the Gulf of Guinea

Despite the global pandemic, attacks on vessels and Oil & Gas installations in the Gulf of Guinea have increased. Piracy in the Niger Delta has reached such a level of organisation that poses a danger far beyond maritime security, with implications ranging from regional security, terrorism and environment issues. The region represents a strategic area not only in the global maritime route, but also for the high density of European interests both off and onshore.

Piracy in West Africa

When it comes to piracy, the African Continent is no stranger to this kind of threat. The first regions that might come to mind when thinking about piracy are Eastern Africa and the Gulf of Aden, and even though piracy is declining around the world, there is a region that has now gained the reputation of the World's most dangerous seas - the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa.

Maritime piracy is strictly defined as the hijacking, detention or attacks on a ship in international waters that takes place more than 12 nautical miles off the coastline and not under the jurisdiction of any state. Any attacks happening within territorial waters are defined as armed heist at sea.

According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), the Gulf of Guinea accounted for 21 attacks globally (as of summer 2020) and 90% of all strikes at sea in 2019. One might ask, why are the attacks rising in this precise region? The Gulf of Guinea is a strategically important sea route, as well as a key production center encompassed by eight oil rich countries, the region accounted for an estimated 40 percent of Europe’s oil imports in 2013.

Most of the attacks have been carried out against vessels participating in the Oil and Gas sector, such as tankers and bulk carriers, which is why increasingly often we refer to these attacks as "petro-piracy". With the coastline of Nigeria being the most affected by this criminal activity, around 60% of attacks in 2019 arose in Nigerian national waters, in particular in the Niger Delta area.

 

“Even though piracy is declining around the world, there is a region that has now gained the reputation of the World's most dangerous seas - the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa.”

 

Dynamics and Trends of Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

The classic modus operandi of the pirates conducting activities in the Gulf of Guinea had predominantly involved the use of small and rapid boats to attack and expropriating the crew of cash and cargo, when the vessel is at anchor, but mostly close to shore.

However, pirates have gradually switched to more advanced tactics by kidnaping fishing vessels, especially within territorial waters, and using the same tactics to attack larger vessels operating in International waters. This made it possible to extend the attacks out at sea, mostly on oil tankers with the aim of stealing the petroleum product. “The GG piracy is the organized, sometimes highly sophisticated, illicit taking of oil. They steal the oil, make a couple of black-market circles of the stuff, and then deposit it back into the global supply”.

In trying to understand piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, it is essential to understand the differences with the one, now almost completely disappeared, in the Gulf of Aden. A fundamental difference is the belief in the existence of a strong organized crime network that provides support and information to the operations of pirates that target oil tankers, such as the value of cargo and the extent of insurance cover. This allegation is supported by different factors. The captivity time of a crew made a hostage in the Gulf of Guinea lasts an average of ten days compared to six months for Somali pirates. Furthermore, the success rate for West Africa has been calculated between 56% to 80% (average 67%), compared to piracy in the Gulf of Aden for the period 2011 to 2014 that is 20% or lower.

 

Risk to the Oil Industry 

Unlike Somali pirates, groups operating in the Niger Delta do not have access to secured ports or "safe" areas for hijacked vessels and crews. This aspect limits, in part, their capability to project their actions in the regions.

The International Oil Companies (IOCs), such as Shell, ExxonMobil, Total, Chevron and ENI that operate in the Gulf of Guinea are especially at risk of being hit by sporadic, yet highly disruptive, cases of piracy in their supply chains.

Although the recent collapse in global oil demand and the consequent drop in the price have not stopped the attacks on vessels in the region, pirates are likely to change their strategy - targeting stationary offshore storage facilities, a rather simple prey for pirates.

Oil theft in the region has reached an industrial magnitude, involving a multitude of parties, ranging from local organized crime groups to international criminals. The elaborate arrangement behind this criminal activity goes as far as the money laundering for the international players. The local workforce is in charge of executing the attacks and of loading the stolen oil, while international actors from Russia, France, Lebanon and Australia, among others, are all part of an extended network playing a role in financing, transporting, and laundering the money associated with oil theft. In fact, this marks another major difference with East African piracy.

 

“Evidence of the involvement of highly connected people in oil theft, including African military personnel and Oil businessmen, has been collected over the years.”

 

Evidence of the involvement of highly connected people, including African military personnel and Oil businessmen, has been collected over the years. In 2006, a commander of the Joint Task Force was removed from office due to alleged implications in oil theft, and throughout the 2000s several other military officers have been arrested with the same charges. IOCs’ personnel have been involved as well – in 2012, two security guards were arrested for pumping oil from Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) pipeline located at Kporgho

 

Why piracy is a threat to the EU

The increase in oil theft and other illegal activities in the Gulf of Guinea has an impact that goes far beyond economic damages to the region. One of the consequences includes the rise in criminal activity in the region, which creates a severe menace to the EU's interest.

The Gulf is a vast and diverse economic region with significant geo-strategic importance, it is a fundamental route for commercial shipping from Europe and America, but also to Central and Southern Africa. The global economy depends on the security of its sea route for the export and import of goods - in our case particularly energy.

Energy trade depends globally on sea-based transportation, and given the fact that the Gulf of Guinea is in proximity to both Europe and North America, it additionally increases its importance in the supply of energy, especially crude oil.

The region currently accounts for the production of 5.4 million of barrels of oil per day, the US are a major consumer of Nigerian crude, they currently source 15% of its supplies from the African country. Furthermore, China and Japan depend on the region for a substantial part of their imported oil and gas, it also supplies France and other European countries.



“Oil and Gas majors have made huge investments in drilling facilities in the area, since the region has the highest rate of discovery of new reserves in the world it attracts large investments in new explorations.”

 

Another aspect that governments need to take in consideration is the part related to the investment conducted by Oil companies. Oil and Gas majors have made huge investments in drilling facilities in the area, since the region has the highest rate of discovery of new reserves in the world it attracts large investments in new explorations. To name just a few, Exxon, Shell, Total, ENI and Chevron are all conducting business in the region.

As recent history has shown us, the way ahead is still full of challenges and far from being solved. It will take a full commitment from both the EU, the international community and the African countries to tackle piracy and any other form of criminal activities in the Niger Delta.

About author: Piero Merlo

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