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EU persists with dark fleet sanctions despite enforcement difficulties

Commission president promises latest sanctions will crack down on circumvention, but proposals still lack guidance on how implementation would be achieved

European Commission plans to ban ships engaging in deceptive practices including illicit ship-to-ship transfer operations and ‘dark’ AIS voyages as the EU considers its 11th package of sanctions, but concerns remain regarding legal and practical enforcement details yet to emerge

THE European Commission is pushing ahead with plans to ban ships that have engaged in “deceptive” practices to circumvent sanctions despite growing concerns within some governments and industry that any proposed mechanism will be “very difficult” to enforce.

As Lloyd’s List first reported last month, the commission has been exploring proposals to target ships repeatedly turning off Automatic Identification System signals and engaging in ship-to-ship transfers as part of a programme of sanctions skirting.

While the plans are still only in draft form, the fact that they have survived an initial round of internal discussion within the commission suggests that the proposals have gained traction.

On Tuesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen confirmed that the focus of the forthcoming 11th package of sanctions measures will be to crack down on circumvention.

“We propose to ban ‘shadow’ entities from Russia and third countries who are intentionally circumventing our sanctions,” she explained, speaking in Kyiv alongside Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Von der Leyen did not offer any further details on the draft plans now being considered by member states and Lloyd’s List understands that the proposals still lack any guidance on how implementation would be achieved.

Industry officials are waiting for an official draft, however, senior industry sources are concerned that the plans will present significant legal and enforcement challenges that to date have not been addressed by the commission.

Lloyd’s List understands that the push to target both AIS and STS operations has come from within the commission, rather than being proposed directly by a member state. However, officials are still trying to figure out if it is both legally and technically possible.

The push from the commission is likely to have been strengthened by the political concern generated by the explosion aboard the dark fleet* aframax tanker Pablo (IMO: 9133587) on May 1.

While the incident was unrelated to EU plans, the commission has been highlighting the safety and environmental risk posed by the so-called dark fleet operations for several weeks in internal meetings.

The Commission has specifically cited a “sharp increase in deceptive practices, and related environmental risks” by vessels trying to circumvent the G7 price cap and a ban on imports of Russian oil to the bloc.

While EU companies are barred from providing an array of services for crude oil transportation unless the cargo on board is purchased at or below the G7 price cap of $60 a barrel, several member states have become frustrated by the lack of enforcement and blatant circumvention. 

In early February, Spanish authorities sent a letter to local shipping services firms reminding them that facilitating the activity risks breaching sanctions, however, EU member states have not pursued any maritime companies over sanctions breaches.

Separately, several states including Spain lobbied the International Maritime Organization in April to address dangerous STS transfers of oil taking place in the open ocean, which increases the risk of spills and high-cost environmental clean-ups.

“There has been an increase in the frequency of STS crude oil transfers in international waters by ships using ‘dark operations’ to circumvent sanctions and high insurance costs,” a submission authored by Australia, the US and Canada, but supported by several EU states, explained to the IMO’s Legal Committee. 

The Commission’s latest package of sanctions proposals are due to be discussed by member state officials starting this week, however, Von der Leyen said that the EU would work closely on its latest package with the G7, suggesting that decisions may be delayed until the forthcoming G7 meeting in Japan starting May 19.

The measures would need the backing of all EU member states to be adopted and current drafts will go through several revisions. It remains unclear whether the shipping specific measures will survive the process.

* Lloyd’s List defines a tanker as part of the dark fleet if it is aged 15 years or over, anonymously owned and/or has a corporate structure designed to obfuscate beneficial ownership discovery, solely deployed in sanctioned oil trades, and engaged in one or more of the deceptive shipping practices outlined in US State Department guidance issued in May 2020. The figures exclude tankers tracked to government-controlled shipping entities such as Russia’s Sovcomflot, or Iran’s National Iranian Tanker Co, and those already sanctioned. Download our explainer on the different risk profiles of the dark fleet here.


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