First there was the Russian oligarch jet tracker; then there was the Russian oligarch yacht tracker; Now there is Russian oil tanker tracker.
the new tool comes from data scientists at Greenpeace UK who created an automated bot that uses public data to tweet about the movements of oil and gas tankers leaving Russian ports. The goal, Greenpeace says, is to cut off one of Russia’s most important sources of revenue, which is helping to fuel President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Russia derives significant revenues from oil and gas — about 40 percent of its federal budget depends on fossil fuel royalties — meaning that tankers fulfilling contracts are major contributors to Russia’s war machine. By tweeting the origin, identity and destination of tankers that have docked in Russian ports, Greenpeace hopes to persuade companies and countries to shun oil and gas purchases from the country.
“This is a really important piece of hypocrisy that needs to be politically highlighted,” said Georgia Whitaker, Oil Campaigner at Greenpeace UK.
Protocol. “Politicians say all the right things, but they don’t necessarily put them into practice.”
Greenpeace claims activists have already diverted a tanker en route to Sweden.
To be fair, none of the deliveries are illegal yet. The Twitter bot launched on March 11, just days after President Joe Biden announced an executive order banning imports of Russian oil and gas, and on the same day Australia announced it would do the same. With the executive order, the Biden administration banned new contracts effective immediately and gave existing orders 45 days to complete delivery. The UK government has announced it will phase out Russian fossil fuel purchases but is giving buyers until the end of the year to wrap things up. No EU country has imposed bans on Russian oil or gas.
Use of Public Data
But the bot brings unprecedented transparency to an industry that tends to operate in secret. The @RUTankerTracker bot uses data from maritime transport, the shipping equivalent of a flight tracking website. The site uses the automatic identification system that all large ships (over 300 tons) or passenger ships are required to use.
AIS is intended as a navigational aid to supplement radar. Ships broadcast their GPS-determined locations on VHF frequencies. Other ships within a radius of about 23 miles can pick up the signals and display them relative to themselves and other nearby ships. AIS can also send other sensor dataincluding rate of turn, rate of pitch and roll, etc. Greenpeace data scientists also use financial data sources such as Bloomberg and Refinitiv to find out a ship’s cargo and destination.
Using all this data, the tracker can determine which ships have docked in Russian ports, announce and disclose updates to their routes where they go based on their reported destination.
Despite all this data, however, the tracker comes with a disclaimer: tracking oil tankers is harder than tracking planes. Sometimes these routes changehowever, for a variety of reasons – ships can change destination depending on the situation price of oil or gas, or they left the port with no destination at all. “We did this work as a rapid response to the attack on Ukraine,” Greenpeace says in a Pinned tweet. “[O]Our bot isn’t perfect and neither are we, but at least we haven’t illegally invaded someone else’s country.”
However, the tanker bot faces a new challenge that even sanctions-enforcing governments find difficult to address. Windward, an Israeli maritime risk consultancy, says at least 33 Russian tankers turned off their AIS transponders last week, twice the average for the past year, according to a report by Bloomberg
. Most “dark” operations took place near the Russian coast. In some cases, Windward followed ships that loitered alongside other tankers for a few hours, possibly transferring oil from one to the other.
This behavior is not new. A few years ago, Russian ships were caught turning off their transponders to deliver oil to Syria, according to the US Treasury Department called: “[V]Ships transporting oil to Syria have been known to disable their AIS transponders to mask their movements.”
International law of the sea requires tankers and other merchant vessels to keep their transponders at sea, and while this may not deter masters or owners who wish to break the law, it does help narrow searches for vessels engaged in illegal activities are. “There is no reason why they should turn off their AIS,” Windward’s Gur Sender told Bloomberg.
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