North Africa Is Buying Up Russian Diesel After EU Ban

North Africa has become a key export outlet of Russia’s diesel and other petroleum products after the EU embargo on imports of Russian fuels took effect in early February.    

African countries on the Mediterranean, as well as Turkey, had started taking in more Russian fuels even before the Western ban. Now signs are emerging that some of those products could be headed for re-export to Europe, analysts say. But they also note that even if this were the case, it’s difficult to ascertain the true origin of a cargo blended with other products.  

And the EU may not be too strict in looking to remove every possible Russian barrel of oil product from its market, considering the major dislocation in global oil trade and the goal of the Western nations to punish Putin but keep his oil flowing around the world. 

The EU banned—effective February 5—seaborne imports of Russian refined oil products and around 1 million barrels per day (bpd) of Russian diesel, naphtha, and other fuels need to find a home elsewhere if Moscow wants to continue getting money for those products. The flow of Russian fuels to third countries is also regulated by price caps, similar to the cap on Russian crude, if the trade is carried out through Western insurers. The cap on Russian diesel is $100 per barrel, while the cap on lower-cost petroleum products is set at $45 a barrel. 

Europe is on track to import this month the highest volumes of diesel from the Middle East and Asia in seven years as the EU turns to alternative supply after the ban on imports of Russian diesel and other fuels took effect.

At the same time, Russian oil product flows to North Africa are surging. Morocco, for example, saw imports of 2 million barrels of Russian diesel in January, compared to just 600,000 barrels for the whole year 2021, according to Kpler data cited by The Wall Street Journal. Tunisia has also seen a surge in imports of Russian petroleum products – to 2.8 million barrels in January and another estimated 3.1 million barrels in February, after negligible volumes imported prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  

According to analysts, those countries will not be consuming all the Russian oil products. North Africa isn’t boosting its refining processing, either. This leaves one plausible explanation for the jump in imports of Russian fuels—re-export to other countries, including Europe, after blending with products of non-Russian origin. 

“Trust me, we are not witnessing some renaissance in Maghrebi refining,” Viktor Katona, a senior oil analyst with Kpler, told the Journal. A part of the Russian oil products will end up in Europe, according to Katona. 

There has been a recent surge in Russian clean petroleum products (CPP) on water, according to Vortexa. 

Currently 87 vessels carrying Russian diesel are on the water, Ioannis Papadimitriou, Senior Freight Analyst at Vortexa, wrote on Friday. Of those, 63 vessels carrying 18 million barrels are currently signaling non-European/non-Mediterranean destinations, or Mediterranean waypoints or ship to ship (STS) transfer zones.  

“The remainder are mainly signalling the Mediterranean, a trend that was starting to appear prior to the ban, with the ultimate destinations being North Africa and to a greater extent Turkey – an opportunistic post-war buyer of Russian oil and gas,” Vortexa’s Papadimitriou said. 

“Vessels do not reflect idle or a ‘wait-and-see’ behavior at great scale, and hence do not display an enormous challenge in finding a buyer in non-traditional markets.”

Analysts and market observers will now have to see how long it would take for STS cargoes to find and reach their final destinations, and if potential major logistics delays could threaten the pace of Russian oil product exports, according to Papadimitriou.  

“Hence, in answering the question whether Russia is finding a way to maintain CPP exports in this new reality, the answer lies closer to a yes than a no.”