Venezuela is using Hurds Bank, a shallow offshore bank located to the east of Malta, to make significant transfers of oil products it needs to sustain its own oil industry, Times of Malta has confirmed.

“An informal ship-to-ship network has been established off Malta in which products are transferred offshore to large tankers which then proceed to Venezuelan ports,” a source in the oil industry said, confirming a report that appeared in Lloyds List.

The South American country is 9,000km away from Malta.

According to Lloyds List, a leading international maritime newspaper, since June at least 10 chemical or product tankers were tracked undertaking ship-to-ship transfers in waters off Malta.

The cargoes then sailed to Venezuela, in some cases with the Vessel Automatic Identification system transponder turned off after heading through the strait of Gibraltar for the transatlantic voyage.

According to Lloyds List, about 400,000 tonnes of refined products have been shipped since the beginning of June.

Hurds Bank, known for oil and gas activity – not always legal – is outside territorial waters and not under the direct jurisdiction of Malta. 

However, the US government, aware of the situation, has made informal representations to the Maltese authorities about the matter.

Venezuela, one of the largest oil producers, is currently facing unilateral US sanctions on its oil exports as part of President Trump’s efforts to force a regime change in the country.

Last June, the US expanded its sanctions against Venezuela’s crude and petroleum industry by banning companies from exporting or re-exporting diluent to the country. This usually comes in the form of light crude oil or heavy naphtha to dilute the thick and heavy crude produced by Venezuela for export.

However, since the US has now stopped providing Venezuela with this crucial product for its industry, the regime of President Nicolas Maduro has somehow found a way to obtaining it through other countries, bypassing the US sanctions. 

The origins of the oil products which are being transferred to Venezuela’s tankers on Hurds Bank are not known. The supply vessels often switch off their transponders during the operation.

Earlier news reports suggested that Russia, which opposes the sanctions, was one of the suppliers. Until last January, when the US sanctions were introduced, American companies used to supply Venezuela’s state oil agency with some 50,000 barrels per day of petroleum products. 

On the other hand, the US used to import some 500,000 barrels a day from Venezuela, the country’s largest market.

Exports from and to the US have now ceased.

Lloyds List says that while the production of oil by Venezuela is currently at its lowest levels, some 39 tankers have shipped crude to India this year and another 48 tankers reached China.

In total, 198 tankers have departed from Venezuela this year until July, which also includes short-haul voyages to the Caribbean Islands, where storage facilities and ship-to-ship transfers are also undertaken.

ivan.camilleri@timesofmalta.com

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