International sanctions are becoming a major foreign policy tool against state-owned oil & gas companies in jurisdictions like Russia and Venezuela that were not used to this type of measure against its economic interest. Until a few years ago, companies like Rosneft Oil Company and Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), easily accessed the international financial markets with multibillion global bond emissions and international financings that were extremely attractive to major investment banks.
The first type of applicable sanctions laws are “primary” sanctions, which are traditional U.S. sanctions, and apply only to prohibited transactions with a U.S. nexus. The second type of applicable sanctions laws are “secondary” sanctions, which apply to transactions that are entirely outside of the jurisdiction of the U.S. but seek to sanction specific types of conduct that the U.S. deems particularly contrary to U.S. policy.
In other words, while the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) generally limits its jurisdiction to U.S. persons, in some instances the national security imperative is so great the OFAC will decide to use secondary sanctions even when there is no U.S. person involved at all, such as targeted sanctions against oil tankers delivering PDVSA’s crude oil.
The sophistication of the sanctions regime is reaching new levels, specifically within the Oil & Gas sector. Notably, OFAC is targeting all types of actions that are currently seeking to circumvent its sanctions regime, with broader consequences to the targeted companies and persons.
The Rosneft & PDVSA Case
Rosneft, PDVSA, and international companies delivering crude oil have been targeted by OFAC. More than 25 oil tankers and 17 shipping companies that were selling crude oil for PDVSA have been sanctioned. This new trend of OFAC sanctions began in April 2019, when 4 shipping companies and 10 ships related to oil trading with PDVSA were targeted.
In February 2020, Rosneft Trading, S.A., and its President Didier Casimiro were subject to OFAC sanctions for the trading of Venezuelan oil. The U.S. Department of the Treasury determined that 80% of the oil tankers used by PDVSA to export oil were from Rosneft. As a result of the sanctions, some crude oil deliveries by Rosneft to China were rejected by potential buyers.
Afterward, in March 2020, TNK Trading international S.A. (TTI), a subsidiary of Rosneft, was targeted by OFAC for replacing Rosneft Trading, S.A. trading operations with PDVSA in order to evade OFAC sanctions. In January 2020, 14 million barrels of crude oil were purchased by TTI from PDVSA. Rosneft stated that the trades were repayments arising out of a $6.5 billion loan to PDVSA with $800 still outstanding by the third quarter of 2019.
PDVSA’s Access to International Financial Markets
After billions of dollars borrowed from major investment banks and global bond emissions, PDVSA’s access to international financial markets was severely affected by its OFAC designation in January 2019.
Effectively, this meant that PDVSA assets under U.S jurisdiction were blocked, OFAC also prohibited all of PDVSA’s related transactions within U.S. jurisdiction, unless otherwise licensed, authorized, or under the scope of the SDN designation. U.S. companies like Chevron, Schlumberger, Baker Hughes, and Weatherford operating in Venezuela requested general licenses to OFAC in order to keep its operations on going with PDVSA.
Bypassing the Sanctions Regime
Iran, Mexico, individuals, and companies have been trying to bypass the OFAC sanctions regime. In May 2020, the U.S. Department of State, OFAC, and the U.S. Coast Guard issued an advisory to international shipping companies to be aware of tactics to evade sanctions like ship-to-ship transfers and by not using the mandatory tracking devices. Such techniques were implemented in crude oil, refined petroleum, and petrochemicals deliveries between Iran and Venezuela.
In Mexico based individuals and entities that were part of a PDVSA sanctions scheme to bypass sanctions were targeted in June 2020. OFAC SDN Alex Nain Moran (Saab) and associates, were evading U.S. Sanctions by doing “oil for food” schemes to sell Venezuelan crude oil. The Mexico based companies, brokered the re-sale of over 30 million barrels of PDVSA’s crude oil by largely replicating Rosneft Trading’s operations and Asian buyers, which did not result in food deliveries to Venezuela according to OFAC.
Saab, last year was charged with money laundering in connection with a bribery scheme by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ stated in the indictment that Saab violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) by paying bribes to Venezuelan government officials in order to access the controlled exchange rate by the Venezuelan government, with import documents for goods and materials that were false and fraudulent and that were never imported into Venezuela.
Moreover, the DOJ alleges that $350 million of bribe payments were transferred through bank accounts located in the Southern District of Florida and then to overseas accounts owned or controlled by Saab. To date, Saab is undergoing an extradition process in Cape Verde to the U.S. in relation to this indictment.
Collateral Effects of the Sanctions Regime
Different collateral effects of the sanctions regime have affected the operations of global oil & gas companies. PDVSA lost three oil supertankers to PetroChina Co Ltd, OFAC sanctions left the ships without insurance, since the insurance companies did not want to be subject to sanctions, this led to the bankruptcy of the joint venture between PDVSA and PetroChina.
The joint venture was created in order to export PDVSA’s oil to China, and other markets. Protection & Indemnity (P&I) insurance for vessels is mandatory pursuant to Singapore law, without the P&I the oil tankers are not able to navigate.
On the other hand, Rosneft announced the sale of its Venezuelan assets to a company 100% owned by the Russian Government, it also terminated all its operations in Venezuela. The selling of the assets is a way to protect Rosneft from current and future sanctions targeted against PDVSA.
The latest escalation to enforce OFAC sanctions is the U.S. seizure of four Iranian fuel tankers heading for Venezuela. A civil forfeiture complaint alleged that a businessman of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization, arranged the fuel sale.
U.S. officials threatened the ship owners, insurers, and the captain of the four Iranian fuel tankers with targeted sanctions to force them to hand over the cargo. As a result, a total of 1.116 million barrels of petroleum are now in U.S. custody, and the websites of the Iranian companies accused of shipping fuel to Venezuela were seized by the DOJ.
The Trump administration has been stepping up the pressure with targeted sanctions and other measures on Venezuela to comply with sanctions against international oil companies like PDVSA, Rosneft, ship owners, and any other entity or person dealing with PDVSA’s crude oil.
Across the Atlantic, E.U. sanctions have proven to be far less aggressive and targeted, with less notable enforcement proceedings against E.U sanctions violations, and with no direct sanctions against PDVSA or towards oil tankers delivering Venezuelan oil.
The collateral effect of targeted U.S. sanctions designation encompasses far-reaching implications since foreign companies must withdraw their business with the sanctioned target or they could also be barred from accessing the U.S. financial system and economy. Material assistance and any transaction with a company sanctioned by the U.S. could be seen by OFAC has assistance in order to bypass the sanctions regime which is the case of the targeted sanctions against Rosneft.
Lifting of OFAC sanctions is possible, targeted oil tankers subject to PDVSA’s sanctions have been delisted when the companies have agreed to expand its risk-based sanctions compliance programs based on the OFAC public guidance model. Moreover, the companies have also pledged to terminate participation in the oil sector of the Venezuelan economy so long as the Maduro government remains in power.
Thus, due to the complexity and ramifications of the U.S. sanctions regime against energy companies like PDVSA and Rosneft, global financial institutions, energy companies, and service providers should implement strong compliance programs to prevent targeted sanctions by OFAC.