The United States government has launched investigation into crude oil shipments from Saltpond platform, a small oil facility off the coast of Ghana, due to strong suspicion that some of Nigeria's stolen oil may be exported through the facility.
The majority owner of the platform, Lushann International Energy Corporation, a private company based in Houston, has agreed that some of the oil it loads into tankers come from Nigeria but insisted that it purchases the crude legally from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which has the primary responsibility of cracking down on oil smuggling.
Though the investigators are yet to arrive at the particulars of evidence, a Saltpond official was said to have testified that the crude oil was got from the EFCC.
The platform, it was learnt, has been shipping large quantities of crude oil from unknown sources to Europe in recent months. The Wall Street Journal on Friday quoted United States officials as saying that Washington was probing Saltpond as part of the broader enquiry into how Nigeria's crude oil is being stolen and exported by local and international syndicates. The investigation by the United States, it was learnt, stemmed from a recent revelation that the small oil facility is exporting large quantities of crude to Europe, raising questions by Nigerian and United States authorities about whether some of the oil were stolen from Nigeria.
Some United States and Nigerian officials are said to be suspecting that Saltpond is one of several destinations that crude oil thieves use to trans-ship stolen Nigerian crude, effectively laundering it by making it appear to come from a legitimate source outside Nigeria. Ghana's government inaugurated the Saltpond platform in 1978 to pump oil from an offshore field.
It was gathered that initially, the field, located seven miles off the country's coast, produced more than a million barrels a year but that later dwindled to just over 100,000 barrels in 2013, The Wall Street Journal quoted Ghana's Finance Ministry, as saying. Port officials, ship-tracking services and port record, however, showed that since last August, three export tankers loaded more than 470,000 barrels from Saltpond, transporting it to an Italian refinery near the port of Genoa.
The operator of the Saltpond platform, which has denied any wrongdoing, and some Nigerian government officials have said that the facility had a legitimate contract with the Federal Government to trans-ship oil that law-enforcement agencies in Nigeria have confiscated from thieves. But officials of the Federal Government said the quantity of crude oil recovered from thieves is small, raising questions about the origins of the rest of the oil the platform has loaded into ships.
However, the Saltpond platform, meanwhile, has been a destination for at least one vessel connected to Nigerian oil theft, according to ship-tracking services. In recent years, executives and officials estimate that as much as 80per cent of Nigeria's stolen oil is being shipped out of the country in small tankers. President Goodluck Jonathan had appealed to the international community to assist Nigeria in curbing oil theft, insisting that it is foreign refineries that buy this stolen crude as Nigeria does not have adequate refining capacity.
"Tankers often will come twice a week to load [stolen oil in Nigeria] and will go abroad," agency report quoted a senior US official familiar with the issue saying. The US official was however, referring to international smuggling and not to Saltpond. "But it's extremely difficult to investigate the final destination," he added.
Washington has in recent years strengthened ties with the federal government and has set up a working group to liaise with Nigerian officials to help curb the smuggling. The General Manager of Tema, Ghana-based Petro-Marine Consult Ltd., which specialises in ship cargo inspections, Mr. Emmanuel Oware was also quoted as saying that small vessels that have loaded what he called "unofficial" oil in Niger Delta frequently come to discharge at Saltpond.
"There, the Nigerian crude is mixed with Ghanaian oil. It comes from Nigeria, but it gets a certificate of Ghana origin," he said. The oil is then transferred to larger tankers, according to Oware, who said he inspected a trans-shipment at Saltpond in 2013. Lushann International Energy Corporation did not dispute that some of the oil it loads into tankers at Saltpond come from Nigeria. But Lushann's owner said the company purchases the crude legally from the EFCC, the authority with primary responsibility for cracking down on oil smuggling.
The company stated that the EFCC sells crude that it seizes in its pursuit of oil theft. "The only crude we take from Nigeria... has been seized by the government," the President and owner of Lushann, Quincy Sintim, was quoted as saying in a telephone interview. "We have invoices that we pay to EFCC Nigeria," he added. Sintim said Saltpond's production had never been higher than 200,000 barrels a year since his company took over in 2000, and declined to comment further.
However, when contacted yesterday, EFCC Head of Media and Publicity, Wilson Uwujaren, told THISDAY that " EFCC is not an oil marketing company and could not have issued any invoice to any oil trader to lift confiscated crude oil from Nigeria."
Uwujaren further maintained that "claims about such invoices purportedly emanating from the Commission by any person or organization should be discountenanced as such documents would have been forged by fraudsters."
The owner and head of Fenix Impex Nig Ltd., a Nigerian oil-trading firm, Jarret Tenebe said he had been selling confiscated Nigerian crude oil to Saltpond on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources, but said the quantities were small. Head of Public Affairs at the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), Mrs. Dorathy Bassey said Fenix only loaded "about 2,000 barrels" of confiscated crude oil since late 2012. It is unclear how much of that was sold to Saltpond but Fenix is Saltpond's only provider of EFCC-confiscated crude, according to Sintim.
The provenance of the other oil that made its way to an Italian refinery over the course of the past year, however, isn't clear. Three cargoes, listed in shipping documents as "Saltpond blend crude oil," went to Genoa's terminal for delivery to Italy's Iplom SpA refinery, according to shipping and port records and officials. Two cargoes, unloaded in August 2013 and February 2014, carried about 340,000 barrels altogether, according to Genoa port officials. The third tanker, unloaded on April of this year, carried 132,000 barrels. Together, that's more than four times the platform's 2013 output of around 100,000 barrels, according to the Ghana government figures.
Iplom's President, Giorgio Profumo confirmed his refinery had received crude labeled as coming from Saltpond but said he believed the cargoes were legitimate because they are approved by the Ghana authorities. Ghana's customs and petroleum regulator didn't return an emailed request for comment and couldn't be reached over the phone. Saltpond, meanwhile, has been a frequent port of call for at least one vessel connected with Nigerian oil smuggling.
The Wall Street Journal also reported that Akshay is a tanker co-owned by Ajay Bhatia, an Indian national who was sentenced in a Nigerian court in May in absentia to 15 years in jail for oil theft. The Akshay traveled three times between Nigeria and Saltpond in the four months before the ship's seizure by the Nigerian navy, for allegedly carrying stolen crude, in November 2012, according to shipping tracker service IHS Fairplay. Two other vessels partly owned by Bhatia also travel frequently from Nigeria to Saltpond, according to vessel database FleetMon.com and to some of the ships' crew members.
Asked about the Akshay and other vessels co-owned by Bathia, Sintim said he would look into those tankers' activity at Saltpond but didn't respond when contacted again. A lawyer for Bhatia declined to comment. Bhatia didn't respond to numerous calls, text messages and emails.