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Special Report: New Players Transform Russian Oil Trade

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As Western traders and majors scale back their purchases of Russian oil because of sanctions, a new class of offtakers has emerged on the scene.

These include obscure trading outfits such as Bellatrix, Sunrise and Livna, as well as more familiar players such as Coral Energy.

Little is known about these firms, which operate on the sidelines of mainstream trading — and sometimes in the shadows.

But Energy Intelligence has pieced together a broad picture from the few available details, including information from traders with access to shipping and port data.

A port agent who monitors Russian oil exports says new names are appearing on a regular basis "and we don't really know who they are."

The situation is expected to become murkier in the months ahead as information on who is buying and selling Russian oil dries up, trading sources say.

"It is getting much darker. You will see more obscure players chartering ships who no one has ever heard of," says a veteran trader of Russian crude. "It will be like Iran and Venezuela, only on a much bigger scale."

Dubai Connection

Dubai-based Coral Energy is the most familiar of the new players, as it has been lifting Russian oil for several years now — mostly products from government-controlled oil giant Rosneft that are shipped via the Black Sea.

In recent months, Coral has also handled several cargoes of Russian crude, port data show. Some of these were sourced from Russneft, a privately owned Russian producer — not to be confused with Rosneft.

Set up in the late 1990s by Russian billionaire Mikhail Gutseriyev, Russneft operates a group of oil fields in Russia producing about 130,000 barrels per day of crude.

One of Coral's recent shipments of Russian crude was delivered several weeks ago to Sri Lanka, where Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera told reporters the country would pay $72.6 million for a 90,000 ton (675,000 barrel) cargo of Siberian Light crude.

That equates to a price of around $107 per barrel.

The cargo had been stuck outside the capital's port for weeks, because the country's sole refiner, Ceylon Petroleum Corp., was closed because of financial difficulties.

The minister said he expected Coral to follow up with a second shipment.

Coral is a niche trading company that began its life in 2010 by buying large amounts of oil from Azerbaijan, according to sources familiar with its history. It has since branched out and now trades in sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey and other areas.

According to corporate records, Coral is 100% owned by Vetus Investments, a Dubai-based company owned by Azeri national Tahir Garayev.

Garayev, 42, is Oxford-educated and domiciled in Dubai but otherwise there is little publicly available information about him. "He keeps a very low profile," says a source who knows Coral well.

Energy Intelligence contacted Garayev for comment by email, but he did not respond before this article was published.

According to an annual report filed in Singapore, Coral recorded sales of $2.9 billion in 2020, compared to $4.4 billion in 2019. Its net profit in 2020 was $29.1 million, the report says, versus $43 million in the previous year.

The Singapore records show that, over the past two years, Coral has received financing from several Russian banks.

These include: Promsvyazbank, which was placed on an EU sanctions list soon after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24; the Swiss unit of Gazprombank, which is part-owned by gas giant Gazprom; and the Swiss affiliate of state savings bank Sberbank.

Neither of the latter two banks is currently subject to sanctions, although the EU is poised to cut Sberbank off from the Swift payment system.

There is no record of Coral obtaining any Russian bank funding since last August.

There is no suggestion that Coral has violated European or any other sanctions. The company conducts its trading out of Dubai and is domiciled in Singapore, and is therefore not bound by EU sanctions.

In the Shadows

Information about other new players on the Russian oil scene is much harder to come by, and in some cases impossible.

Since mid-April, an outfit called Bellatrix Energy has handled at least half a dozen Russian crude shipments from the Baltic ports of Primorsk and Novorossiysk, mostly sourced from Rosneft.

Shipping data show cargoes going to India, Turkey and, recently, the Italian port of Augusta, home to a refinery owned by Algeria's state oil company Sonatrach.

Most of the India-bound barrels have gone to the port of Vadinar, which supplies the 400,000 b/d Nayara Energy refinery, in which Rosneft owns a 49% stake.

Some of the tankers used by Bellatrix belong to Russian state shipping giant Sovcomflot, implying that the company has some support from Russian state entities.

Bellatrix has no public track record of doing business in Russia, or anywhere else.

More than 10 Western traders and ship agents surveyed by Energy Intelligence said they had never heard of the company before, not even remotely.

A company called Bellatrix Energy is domiciled in Hong Kong. Established in 2020, it claims on its website to "provide the best quality products and services to our customers with our expert staff."

However, the company does not list any phone numbers or details about personnel. It did not respond to an email request for comment.

If this is the same company, its trading activities would not be affected by European sanctions because it is a non-EU domiciled company.

Another mysterious company, Sunrise, has appeared as an offtaker of Rosneft crude in recent weeks, with at least two shipments due to be completed from Primorsk this month, according to shipping sources.

Like Bellatrix, it has no record of previous trade in Russian oil and is an unknown quantity in the wider trading community.

Paramount's Importance

Traders have also noticed a Hong Kong-based entity called Livna — which has been around since 2014 — becoming a regular shipper of Espo crude from Russia's Kozmino terminal in the Far East.

More is known about Livna, which is reported to have loaded seven 100,000 ton cargoes over the past month.

"You have seen them now again as an Espo lifter, but now they are much more active," a European trading source says.

Livna works closely with Paramount Energy, the source says, referring to the established Geneva-based trading company that has been a regular lifter of Espo crude for more than five years.

Livna could not be reached for comment.

Paramount was set up by veteran Dutch trader Niels Troost over five years ago and is affiliated with Tenergy, another Geneva-based trading firm. It receives most of its Espo barrels from small Russian producers.

In the past it has sold cargoes to a range of Chinese state buyers, including ChemChina and Sinochem, with the occasional sale to South Korea, traders say.

Paramount has also handled regular volumes of crude from Turkmenistan that is transited across Russia and sold as Siberian Light, according to trading sources.

The company is also active in Africa, where it trades different commodities, including oil.

Paramount did not respond immediately to an email request for comment.

Big Traders

Key offtake roles are still being played by the better-known trading arms of some of the big Russian oil companies.

These include Energopole, the Geneva-based marketing subsidiary of Rosneft that has been handling Russian barrels on a regular basis since 2020, when its Rosneft Trading unit was blacklisted by the US Treasury over its dealings with Venezuela.

Previously known as Rosneft European Services Group and headed by Russian national Vitaly Zbant, Energopole had been shipping occasional Urals cargoes to the Italian port of Trieste to supply the Bayernoil and Miro refineries in Germany. Rosneft holds minority interests in both of those plants.

Energopole also has a long-term crude supply deal with Nayara Energy, and has marketed some Kurdish barrels on behalf of its parent company — business that was previously handled by Rosneft Trading, traders say.

On its website, Energopole says it "has no connection" with Rosneft Trading, which still exists on paper but does no business in practice, sources say. Energopole did not respond to a request for comment.

Energopole has shown a slight uptick in its Russian business in recent months, according to shipping data.

It was due to load two Urals cargoes from Rosneft at the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, one of which was destined for Trieste, the data show.

By far the most prolific of the Russian trading subsidiaries is Litasco, the Geneva-based arm of privately owned giant Lukoil.

As well as marketing oil on behalf of its parent, with most of its Russian crude shipped out of Novorossiysk, Litasco does plenty of third-party trading — including in the Mideast, Asia and Europe.

Headed by Azeri national and longtime Lukoil executive Nazim Suleymanov, Litasco is not on any EU or Swiss sanctions lists.

Traders note that Lukoil owns three refineries in Europe — in Bulgaria, Romania and Italy — making it unlikely to be blacklisted any time soon.

State-controlled Russian producer Gazprom Neft also has a European trading arm, based in Vienna, which dates back to 2004. But trading sources say Gazprom Neft now does most of its trading out of its St. Petersburg office.

Others Drop Out

The biggest change in Russian oil export patterns in recent weeks has been the disappearance of trading giants Vitol and Trafigura from shipping lists.

At the beginning of the year, the two companies were handling as much as 500,000 b/d of Russian crude between them, mostly under long-term offtake deals with Rosneft.

Over the past month, however, their crude volumes have steadily dropped to zero, although they continue to lift some Russian oil products from Baltic and Black Sea ports, shipping data show.

EU sanctions set a May 15 deadline for companies in member states to halt all dealings with certain Russian state-controlled companies — including Rosneft, Gazprom Neft, pipeline operator Transneft and Sovcomflot unless they were deemed "absolutely necessary."

The sanctions were also adopted by the Swiss government, meaning that Vitol, which is Geneva-based, and Trafigura, which is domiciled in Singapore but has a big trading presence in Switzerland, were obliged to comply.

Before the deadline, Trafigura said it would stop all Russian crude offtake and slash product shipments, while Vitol told news agencies it would cut back Russian volumes from the second quarter, with the aim of eliminating them by the end of the year.

Other trading firms like Glencore and Gunvor, which were once prolific offtakers of Russian oil, have also reduced their volumes to a trickle and are shunning any new business in Russia.

"This looks to be the end of the road for Western traders in Russia," a UK-based trading source says.

Topics:
Oil Trade, Crude Oil, Oil Supply, Oil Demand, Sanctions, Policy and Regulation
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