Venezuela’s Secret Weapon: A “Dark Fleet” Of Oil Tankers

According to a Reuters investigation, Venezuela’s secret weapon might be a “dark fleet” of oil tankers. The country’s national oil company, PDVSA, had reportedly leased 41 tankers in 2022.

Dark fleet is a term used to describe the assortment of tanker vessels which conceal their locations so as to enable the transportation of illicit cargoes of crude oil and derivative products. This is done using a variety of deceptive techniques to prevent the tanker from being identified or tracked. These include turning off the vessel’s ID system, spoofing its location and using multiple flags of convenience over short periods. While this has been a long-running practice that emerged to cloak the transportation and sale of U.S.-sanctioned oil from Venezuela and Iraq it exploded after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To penalize Moscow for the attack on Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies sanctioned Russia’s economically crucial petroleum exports. This caused the volume of vessels evading identification to surge. A substantially larger dark fleet is extremely beneficial for Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela, which only two years ago was a near-failed state on the verge of collapse but has since seen its economy return to growth.

The dark fleet first emerged as U.S. sanctions against Iran and Venezuela were ratcheted up to prevent those pariah states from exporting their crude oil to key markets without incurring hefty penalties. The volume of tankers clandestinely shipping petroleum to Iran and Venezuela has surged over the last three years. According to a Reuters investigation, there was a fleet of 300 vessels clandestinely shipping Iranian crude oil by March 2023 compared to 70 in November 2020. The news agency also stated earlier this year that Venezuela’s national oil company PDVSA had leased 41 tankers in 2022 to ship Venezuela crude oil, paying roughly double the market rate. In an earlier Reuters article, it was estimated that there were more than 200 tankers, including over 80 supertankers, shipping Iranian and Venezuelan crude oil.

Latest estimates from a variety of sources put the number of vessels in the dark fleet at a far higher number. According to maritime AI company Windward there are 1,100 vessels in the dark fleet, with around 32% crude oil tankers, another 20% being oil product vessels, and the remainder comprised of chemical as well as other types of tankers. Analysts from other data broker firms put the number of vessels at around 700, but given the fleet’s opaque nature, it is difficult to determine the correct number. While PDVSA has its own fleet of 22 tankers, a recent internal report claimed that at least half of them are in such poor condition, they are unfit to ship crude oil. It is for that reason, along with growing oil production, that a larger dark fleet will be beneficial for Venezuela.

The currency Lira has plunged after President of Turkey Erdogan appointed Hafize Gaye Erkan, the co-CEO of the failed First Republic Bank, as the new Central Bank Governor.

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