By Joe Brock
ABUJA (Reuters) - Stolen Nigerian oil worth billions of dollars is sold every year on international markets and much of the proceeds are laundered in world financial centres like Britain and the United States, a report said on Thursday.
An estimated 100,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil was stolen from pipelines in the Niger Delta in the first quarter of this year, the report by London-based Chatham House said, not including the unknown quantities stolen from export terminals.
The theft amounts to around 5 percent of Nigeria's current 2 million bpd production but has a wider impact because oil companies are often forced to shut down pipelines due to damage caused by thieves. Nigeria is producing 400,000 bpd below its capacity, mainly due to theft and pipeline closures.
The activity costs Africa's second biggest economy an estimated $5 billion a year in potential revenue.
While oil majors like Royal Dutch Shell and Italy's Eni are often the first to complain about theft, it is unclear how much they are losing from it. A measure of acceptable losses may be keeping them from taking determined preventive action, the report said. Oil firms do not pay royalties on stolen oil.
"Nigerian crude oil is being stolen on an industrial scale. Proceeds are laundered through world financial centres and used to buy assets in and outside Nigeria," said the 70-page report, entitled "Nigeria's Criminal Crude".
"Thieves have many ways to disguise funds ... including cash smuggling, delayed deposits, use of middlemen, shell companies and tax havens, bribery of bank officials, cycling cash through legitimate businesses and cash purchases of luxury goods."
The report named the United States, Britain, Dubai, Indonesia, India, Singapore and Switzerland as likely money-laundering hotspots, and the United States, Brazil, China, Thailand, Indonesia and the Balkans as the most likely destination for stolen oil.
Nigeria's Oil Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke has called for stolen oil to be labelled "blood oil", arguing the security risk is similar to those in past and present mineral conflict zones such as Angola, Sierra Leone or Congo.
But the Chatham House report suggested violence associated with the theft is less than supposed, although the armed gangs involved have destablised the oil-producing Niger Delta in the last decade.
However, the links between oil thieves, pirates and global criminal networks - including arms and drug traffickers - could feed broader insecurity in West Africa, it suggested.
The world's biggest cause for worry is the money laundering which poses reputational risks for the financial centres that facilitate it, said the report, the first independent, in-depth investigation into the international dimensions of Nigerian oil theft.
HOW IT WORKS
Nigerian oil theft's enduring, if misleading, image is of youths in canoes breaking into pipelines. Yet, these gangs are merely one strand in a complex criminal web that includes foreign oil traders, shippers, bankers, refiners, high-level politicians and military officials, the report said.
Multiple criminal groups, some as small as a family unit, operate independently. Foreign oil majors sometimes seem willing to overlook it, evidence from dozens of interviews showed.
Specific individuals or companies were not named.
"IOCs (international oil companies) pay no royalties on crude illegally bunkered ... Anything stolen from the field is exempt," it says, adding that the biggest costs are cleaning up after spills and money spent on security.
"For now, theft may not harm IOCs enough to spur a more determined ... approach," it says.
Foreign governments are doing little to stop theft, despite the risks it poses to legitimate oil markets and its links to all kinds of criminal activities.
"Oil theft is a species of organised crime that is almost totally off the international community's radar," the report says. "Nigeria is the main West African hub for other types of organised crime ... notably piracy, drug and arms trafficking. The networks involved sometimes overlap with oil theft."
Oil theft begins in the labyrinthine creeks and waterways of the Niger Delta, a swampland area spanning over 10,000 square miles that has long been blighted by kidnappings, militant uprisings and gangland violence. It is a region capable of producing 1.5 million bpd of oil and is rife with corruption.
On the smallest scale, gangs hack into exposed pipelines and siphon off oil to be processed in makeshift refineries. But the bulk of the theft is done on a larger scale by networks who can tap into infrastructure buried under ground or water.
They break into wellheads and pipelines, install their own pumps and use hoses, some measuring up to 2 kilometres, to load oil onto barges which travel through the delta and transfer the crude onto small tankers at the coast, the report says.
It said the barges were capable of carrying 3,000-18,500 barrels of oil and the tankers 31,000-62,000 barrels.
Once there is enough oil in the tankers it is transferred, usually under the cover of darkness, onto an international class 'mother ship' waiting further offshore, which can then carry the stolen crude oil to refineries or storage outside Nigeria.
Stolen crude is often mixed with legally bought oil to make it harder to track.
CAN IT BE STOPPED?
The web of beneficiaries of oil theft makes it difficult to stop and there are doubts whether anyone capable of curbing it really has the will to do so, the report says.
Oil theft sometimes funds politics in Nigeria, including election campaigns. There are nationwide polls due in 2015.
Although security forces have arrested dozens of oil thieves in recent months there have been no high-level convictions.
Nigeria's supposedly legitimate oil sales business is murky itself, with almost all its crude oil exports sold through traders, a unique system among oil exporting countries.
"Lines between legal and illegal supplies of Nigerian oil can be blurry. The government's system for selling its own oil attracts many shadowy middlemen, creating a confusing, high-risk marketplace," the report said.
It runs through possible options for foreign powers interested in curtailing the practice such as genetic oil fingerprinting, sanctions or regulating Nigeria's sales - but dismisses most of them as likely to do more harm than good.
It says following the money trail - "convicting oil thieves of laundering money and seizing their assets should be part of almost any cross-border strategy" - is a promising avenue.
Oil theft is likely to persist if Nigerian politicians choose not to clamp down because foreign states' and companies' first priority will be not to upset their own oil supplies.
Nigeria is among the world's top 10 crude oil exporters and a key supplier to Europe, Brazil and India, providing billions of dollars in income for foreign oil and shipping firms.
"A key issue is how much oil companies, traders and shippers would be willing to contribute at the risk of undermining their ... capacity to operate in Nigeria," the report said.