Oil & Gas

Big oil traders stay circumspect on reviving Russia dealings

The world’s biggest oil traders said they’re wary of trying to muscle back into Russian exports, a response that might disappoint the US Treasury officials working to ensure no disruption to global petroleum supplies.

Vitol Group, the largest independent oil trader, doesn’t see getting back into the Russian market as a priority, Chief Executive Officer Russell Hardy said at the FT Commodities Global Summit in Lausanne, Switzerland on Tuesday. International sanctions permit the trade, albeit under conditions.

Trafigura Group, Vitol’s close rival, isn’t handling Russian crude, CEO Jeremy Weir said at the same event. That position is under constant review, but the company would need to engage in significant dialogue with all stakeholders, including Ukraine, before changing it, he said.

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“Clearly, we are very, very cautious,” Torbjorn Tornqvist, chief executive of Gunvor Group, said in an interview on the sidelines of the event. “The banks will have nothing to do with it, generally speaking.”

Before the invasion of Ukraine, Vitol, Trafigura, Glencore Plc and Gunvor had been major traders of Russian oil, signing long term deals with its state-owned producers and investing in projects.

As the war unfolded, the big traders mostly stepped away in condemnation of the Kremlin’s military aggression. They have remained out of the business, even as some governments, particularly the US, proposed measures to encourage trade in Russian oil, while using price caps to constrain Moscow’s revenue.

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Invoice level data for December show just how far that has shifted, with six little-known firms grabbing a huge slice of Russia’s export trade.

Gunvor handles no Russian crude and only very small quantities of products. As for Vitol, Hardy said that only 100,000 barrels a day of the 7.5 million a day it handled last year was attributable to Russian business. Even if new guidance from governments encourages a revival, it will be marginal, he said.

The European Union banned oil imports from Russia from Dec. 5 and simultaneously joined the Group of Seven in capping the price of the nation’s crude. Anyone paying over $60 a barrel isn’t allowed to use key western services, especially insurance, to move the oil to buyers.

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The Financial Times reported previously that White House officials held talks with some of the world’s top traders, encouraging them to return to dealing in Russian barrels.

Asked how Vitol viewed such a return, Hardy replied: “I wouldn’t describe it as a priority.”

Instead, the merchants widely pointed to the flaws of the current system: that sizeable flows of Russian oil have migrated to less experienced and less transparent firms, posing environmental and insurance risks if a tanker operated by one of these players suffers a collision or oil spill.

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