You can track them still on MarineTraffic.com … the MV Seacod, the MV Boris Vilkitsky and the MV Pearl. Three ghost ships of the energy system, the spirits of the Economic War.
All three of these vessels broke out of the fog that normally swathes the constant trade in oil and gas. All three neared the estuaries of Britain in the days shortly after the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. As the battle raged in cities such as Mariupol and Kharkiv these ships ploughed the seas towards their planned destinations.
The first, the MV Pearl liquid natural gas (LNG) tanker owned by Shell docked at the Dragon Terminal in Milford Haven, Wales, on Thursday 3rd March a week after Russian forces attacked. Sailing under a Maltese flag, she carried 174,000 cubic meters of liquefied gas that was piped onshore and regasified, prior to being pumped into the National Grid system and away to the cookers and power stations of Britain.
There was little notice paid to this massive ship that had powered from a western Russian port, and only once it had unloaded and departed on the evening of Friday 4th March – bound for the US Gulf of Mexico – did it receive coverage in the Nation Cymru. Business as usual in the world of fossil fuels. (You can follow her on Marine Traffic)
The second vessel, the MV Seacod did not go unnoticed. She arrived in Liverpool Bay carrying a cargo of Russian oil loaded on Tuesday 22nd February, two days before the invasion of Ukraine. Her hold was filled at the port of Primorsk near St Petersburg, which accounts for 30% of the country’s seaborne crude exports. Already, as she waited in the roads off New Brighton she made the local press, the Birkenhead News. She managed to dock as planned at the jetty in Tranmere on the Wirral. It was intended that her load would be pumped ashore. The crude was to be driven through fifteen miles of pipeline, under the woods and meadows of Eastham Country Park, to the refinery of Stanlow.
Amidst this array of storage tanks and flare stacks, the liquid geology of Russia was to be turned into petrol and diesel, jet fuel and tarmac, ready to be distributed across the North West of England and North and Mid Wales. The machine of the refinery dominates the southern bank of Mersey an icon that is celebrated in music – as we described in Crude Britannia. The pulsing somber track by Jesu, titled Stanlow, includes the lines:
All the ghosts that haunt us don’t scare
We’re just too selfish to be that aware
But some were aware of the Seacod’s cargo. Soon after the press reports the dockers of Tranmere, members of Unite, refused to handle the ship’s cargo, declaring that they would
“under no circumstances unload any Russian oil regardless of the nationality of the vessel which delivers it.”
They graphically illustrated the loophole in the UK government’s ‘sanctions regime’. Grant Shapps, UK Transport Minister, had declared that Russian owned or flagged vessels could not dock at British ports, but had not referred to Russian cargos. The Seacod is German flagged, though carrying a cargo of Russian oil most likely sold by Litasco, the trading arm of the oil company Lukoil, to the owners of Stanlow, the Indian-based Essar Petroleum. (We covered the background of Stanlow and Essar in an earlier blog.)
The dockers of the Mersey, with a long history of independent and radical action stretching back to the strike against casualization of labour in 1995 and beyond, took matters into their own hands. It may well be that they received support from workers in the Stanlow Refinery, for union members there had taken action in the 1980s against Shell – who then owned the plant – over the corporation’s involvement in Apartheid South Africa. We should not underestimate the courage of their decision, given that it caused a substantial cost and embarrassment to Essar. Essar who own the refinery and the jetty, are one of the major employers in the region and sponsor the local football team, Tranmere Rovers. Essar who are themselves, deeply embedded in the Russian oil world as they have had a substantial commercial partnership with Rosneft in the Indian market since 2017.
It looks as though the Seacod’s shipment of Russian oil will be the last such cargo in the Mersey for some while. The ship herself left the Tranmere jetty on the Sunday morning of 6th March and headed North apparently still carrying her crude cargo. A day later she was in The Minch. At the time of writing she was off the coast of Norway, apparently returning to Primorsk. (You can follow her on Marine Traffic )
The third vessel was equally unlucky. The MV Boris Vilkitsky, carrying LNG from the Russian port of Sabetta had departed that Arctic city on 24th February, the day of the invasion. The gas had been extracted by Novatek, a Russian firm in which TotalEnergies owns a 20% stake. The ship is owned by the Greek firm Dynagas and managed by the Russian company Yamal LNG OAO.
The vast tanker arrived at the mouth of the Thames Estuary in the early hours of Friday 4th March. Before she began her passage into the narrow entrance of the River Medway and reached the quay of the Isle of Grain terminal, the dockers refused to unload her. Mat Lay, National Energy Organiser of UNISON said
“The workers at the National Grid terminal don’t want to touch the cargo given the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine… These staff are determined to show their support for the Ukrainian people and uphold the sanctions imposed against Russia.”
At any other moment, dockers refusing to carry out contracted duties would have been vilified in the press, now they were celebrated in the local and national media. Workers were taking a principled stand in support of the suffering citizens of the Ukraine, and risking disciplinary action, at precisely the time when the Tory government seemed to be foot dragging over implementing sanctions on Russian oligarchs.
The terminal at Isle of Grain is owned by National Grid and they have a long-term access agreement with Centrica. That company, which sells gas to UK householders and businesses (and oversaw a 44% profit increase in 2021 on the back of huge price rises) had purchased the LNG load aboard the MV Boris Vilkitsky. This was in spite of the CEO of the corporation declaring only four days earlier on 1st March:
“We are shocked by the events unfolding in Ukraine and the needless loss of life … We intend to exit our gas supply agreements with Russian counterparts, principally Gazprom, as a matter of urgency.”
The mighty ship had to slink back out to sea again carrying its unwanted cargo. The box bulk of it would have been visible from the seafront at Margate as it travelled east and then turned south into The Channel. The following day she docked at Montoir-de-Bretagne, 40 km west of La Zad, on the coast of France, owned by Engie. Perhaps her captain took orders from the vessel’s managers as to her new destination? Or maybe Centrica, as the charterers of the ship were looking for a new purchaser for the gas on board? Or did TotalEnergies direct the cargo to France – a cargo whose value was spiralling as the ship undertook its voyage?
At the French port, the MV Boris Vilkitsky was met by Greenpeace demonstrators in inflatable boats with banners on Saturday 5th March.
Helene Bourges, head of the fossil fuel campaign for Greenpeace France said:
“How many more missiles have to destroy civilian lives before we ditch fossil fuels? Putin’s invasion is yet another example of the many conflicts fuelled by oil and gas across the world.” She continued: “After helping fill the Kremlin’s pockets and fuel its tanks, the oil giants are now racing to leave Russia in a desperate attempt to protect their image. But the damage is done and despite the sanctions, ships loaded with Putin’s gas are still docking in Europe.”
By this time the news wires were beginning to hum with the observation that the world’s oceans was becoming dotted with ships loaded with Russian oil or gas looking for buyers. Traders were concerned that other ports would follow the British example. Notably the dockers in France did not take action as UNISON and Unite members had done, but if they did, and the same took place in Germany, Italy or USA? What then?
Two days after the workers of Grain turned away the MV Boris Vilkitsky, on Sunday 6th March news broke that US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, was in ‘active discussions’ to ban imports of Russian oil with President Biden and US allies. The idea clattered through the diplomatic corridors of the EU, Germany, the UK and other states as the Ukrainian President Zelensky called for it on his daily video broadcasts. The global price of oil instantly sky rocketed – hitting $139 per barrel, close to the summits that preceded the 2008 Crash. European gas prices also jumped to a new record high of €239 per megawatt hour. A year previously the price was around €16.
The prospect of such price rises fills most of the economic ministries of the industrial world with horror and there was a notable backing away from the idea of an oil embargo in the days that followed, especially from the German government that is dependent on Russia for 49 % of it’s gas. The EU collectively receives 41% of its gas imports from Russia. (Britain by contrast obtains approximately 3 to 4% of its gas from Russia.) Then on Tuesday 8th March the UK announced that it would phase out all oil and gas imports from Russia by the end of 2022. And later on the same day came the dramatic announcement from President Biden that the US would embargo Russian oil. The governments of the West following the actions of the dockers of the Thames and Mersey taken five days earlier!
These weeks provide a rare window into the trade in physical oil and gas, into the dependency of economies on the transport of hydrocarbon molecules that takes place continuously. Night and day, every day of the year, with oil not only coming from Russia but also from places such as Kuwait or Nigeria, and gas coming from an array of states from Qatar to Peru. It is part of the conveyor belt that transfers carbon from deep beneath the lithosphere to high up into the atmosphere, passing through the engines of our cars or the cookers in our kitchens.
It is a conveyor belt that can and must be halted, and the dockworkers of Britain – acting for humanitarian reasons rather than climate reasons – have shown how it can be done. We need also to refuse this oil that fuels the war machine and at the same time refuse the hydrocarbons that feed the climate pyre.
As we pursue a Just Transition it is surely unlikely that this transition will come as a smooth orderly progression, rather it is set to be through a number of disruptive jolts. These shocks to Crude Britannia, like the storms that howl in from the Atlantic, will not come at a time or place of our choosing. What we are currently experiencing is one such shock and it is our task to support the moves to get off Russian oil and gas. But this withdrawal should not lead us to imagine we can replace it with oil and gas extracted in the UK, but use it as a stepping stone to getting off all hydrocarbons.
There is something unique about oil and LNG tankers among the systems that transport hydrocarbons, unlike undersea gas pipelines they are highly visible and these massive ships are vulnerable to acts of refusal. Might we imagine a future in which all oil and gas ships approaching UK ports are met by environmental demonstrators and turned away by Unite or UNISON members?
Thanks to Terry Macalister, Rob Noyes and Gavin Bridge