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How we used a Twitter bot to identify the companies shipping Russian oil to Europe

Read our data story here.

In this post, I explain how we were able to identify the shipping companies transporting Russian oil to European markets. My aim was to shed light on what are often opaque supply chains. I wanted to go beyond the headlines, which were focused on what countries were importing Russian oil, to identify the specific ships transporting the oil and the companies that controlled them. 

This latter part – ship ownership or control – is particularly tricky, but knowing who controls the ships is a necessary part of understanding where responsibility lies in the oil and gas supply chain. This post explores both how I went about the work of linking ships to companies and how I ranked levels of confidence about verifying ship ownership.

My investigation relied on a Twitter bot and some basic open-source investigation skills. Using only publicly available open source information, we examined nearly 500 voyages of the largest oil and gas tankers that have transported Russian oil since 10 March 2022 until 24 April 2022. Ultimately, we were able to draw on tweets about individual ship voyages to construct a data base that enabled us to get an overview of what companies were involved in shipping Russian oil and gas.

In this article, I outline exactly what this entailed. Also available here – at the very bottom of this article – is the dataset that resulted from our investigation. The data is free to use in accordance with a creative commons 4.0 license, which includes referring to InvestigationLab when using the data.

Shipping oil and gas 101

Simplified, the shipping industry can look something like the graphic above. A shipping company usually does not own ships; instead, a shipping company will control a plethora of subsidiary companies, which in turn own ships. Often, the sole purpose of a subsidiary is to own a single ship. This is called a one-ship subsidiary and its function is to limit the liabilities that might arise from an eventual disaster in which a the ship might be involved, such as an oil spill.  These subsidiaries are often registered in tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions such as the Seychelles or Bermuda.

These ship-owning subsidiaries will then rent out their ships to companies that want to move commodities, like oil or gas. This is called chartering. In many cases, they will charter their ships for months or years at a time and sometimes they will charter their ship for just a single journey. Our research aimed at identifying the ultimate ship owners and not the companies that were chartering or managing the ships.

Finding the Ships

Our investigation started in early March 2022 when Greenpeace created a Twitter bot called Russian Tanker Tracker or @RUTankerTracker. At the time, we wrote a small piece on the usefulness of such a tool for investigators. @RUTankerTracker uses the Marine Traffic API to identify when a ship enters or leaves a Russian port. Marine Traffic is a commercial ship tracking service which uses a ships Automatic Identification System (AIS) to track a ship’s current location. You can read more about how AIS works here.

When @RUTankerTracker tweets about a ship, it tweets out in a standardized format, including the name of the ship, the port it left, and a link to the vessel’s profile page on Marine Traffic. Over time, as the tweets about ships voyages accumulated, the Twitter bot became a good source for historical voyage data, something that otherwise costs a significant amount of money to obtain from a commercial ship monitoring provider.

We signed up for a Twitter development account, which we received access to quickly. With this account, we were able to scrape all tweets the bot had ever made (1778 tweets as of 24 April 2022). From this data we were able to extract ship names and ports, which we could then organize into a spreadsheet.

Now, one challenge was that many ships share the same name. For example, if you were to search in a commercial provider of shipping data, like Equasis, for a ship called ‘Ocean’ you would get hundreds if not thousands of ships with similar names. For this reason, we needed to have each ship’s unique identifying number, which is called the IMO. An IMO number is a unique seven-digit number given to a ship. That number does not change, even when sold to someone else in another country. Luckily for us, @RUTankerTracker always linked to Marine Traffic’s vessel page in their tweets, which included the IMO number of the ships. From this, we were able to scrape IMO numbers and additional information, such as vessel flag and vessel type (for example a crude oil or an LNG tanker).

Once we did that, we had a dataset that looked something like this:

The next step was to clean the data. This we did by first creating a new sheet to work in and adding all the tweets mentioning a ship leaving a Russian port. We made sure to exclude all tweets that did not have to do with a ship leaving a Russian port. For example, the @RUTankerTracker also tweeted out a ship’s destination and estimate time of arrival. This was information that could be useful for further investigation, but it was not all that relevant to our immediate focus.

Then we removed any duplicates. This included removing any tweets referring to voyages by the same ship that were separated by only a few hours or days. This eliminated tweets by the bot referring, for example, to the same ship leaving a port twice during the same day. (We assumed these duplicates were generated by the way the bot picked up on updates from Marine Traffic, or the way Marine Traffic picked up on changes in AIS the position of ships. We reached out to Greenpeace in an attempt to clarify this but have not received a reply on this yet.)

When we were satisfied with the cleaning job, we had roughly 450 individual voyages to analyze.

Finding the Owners

Now that we had the ships names and IMO numbers we could go ahead and try to find the companies that owned them. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to access corporate information about oil tankers. Doing so would either cost us thousands of dollars to purchase the information from a commercial provider or it would take us many hours of OSINT labour. We chose the latter.

In order to find the ship-owning company, one needs to know where to look. There are several ways to do this, some more complicated than others and some sources less trustworthy. The two we recommend are Equasis and International Maritime Organization’s Data Portal.

We used Equasis most of the time since the interface is more intuitive and the data is well structured. Equasis was created by the European Commission and the French Maritime Association as an information platform to make shipping information available on the internet and has been around since the early 2000s. You must create a free account to search their database. When logged in, you can paste the IMO number into the search bar, and it will return information about the ship. A click on the ship’s profile page will give you its history, which includes previous ship names and flags and – more importantly – ownership company data.

As an example, let’s have a look at how we identified the company that owns the Sea Jaguar.

Case study: who owns Sea Jaguar?

SEA JAGUAR (IMO 9482627) is a crude oil tanker that was flagged by @RUTankerTracker leaving the Russian port of Novorossiysk on the 31st of March 2022. It sailed under the Marshall Island flag. By navigating to its profile page on Equasis we can see that it has had a number of owners over the years and changed name a few times. We can also see that the current ‘registered owner’ is listed as ‘COBALT NAVIGATION SA’ which assumed ownership in 2017 (see below)

A quick Google demonstrates that Cobalt Navigation has zero online presence. This suggests that the company is most likely a subsidiary. To discover where the subsidiary is registered, we can go to the IMO data portal (again, you have to make a free account). From here, you can type in the IMO and the ship will pop up. In the IMO data portal, you can find out which country the company is registered in. At the bottom of the image below, we can see that the company is registered in the Marshall Islands.

Note that in the case of the Sea  Jaguar, the ship was both registered in the Marshall Islands and flew under a Marshall Islands flag. This is not always the case. Quite often a ship can be registered in one country and the company that owns it be registered in another. Flagging ships in this way is to make use of what is referred to as a flag of convenience.

A search in the Marshall Island’s business registry revealed that a company named Cobalt Navigation SA was established on the 13 July 2017, which is almost exactly a month before it was registered as the owner of the Sea Jaguar by Equasis. The proximity in time of the company registration in the Marshall Islands and the registration of the ship with Equasis strongly suggests that Cobalt Navigation SA is a subsidiary company created to act as the registered owner by a beneficiary ship owner. Now we need to find the beneficiary owner.

Finding the Beneficial Owner

There is no one-methods-fits-all to identify the beneficiary ship owner. However, we uncovered some tips and tricks that can help you simplify your search and save you money. First and foremost, the large ship-owning companies are global and tend to have a public profile. Since they look to attract clients to charter for, they will often have a website showcasing their fleet list, like this. There are, of course, exceptions to this. For example, Chinese or Turkish ship-owning companies feel less of a need to showboat (sorry).

Secondly, a ship-owning company with a fleet of ships is usually mentioned by media organizations that follow the tanker industry, such as TradeWindsNews or Splash247. Often, the sale and purchase of ships by these companies is also mentioned in reports by specialized trade media such as these. Point being, you will often find a fair bit about the activities of ship-owning companies online. This provides us at least one source on which to draw that is independent of the ship monitoring providers.

One of the quickest ways to identify the ship-owning company is by looking at who is listed as the ISM manager in Equasis. If you are lucky, the beneficiary ship owner will list themselves (or a very similarly named subsidiary) as the ISM manager. The ISM manager is responsible for ensuring the ship is complying with safety and pollution standards. Ship-owning companies often list themselves or a prominent subsidiary as the ISM manager.

In the Equasis screenshot above, we could see that PANTHEON TANKERS MANAGEMENT is listed as the most recent ISM manager for the SEA JAGUAR. A quick google search turned up a Pantheon Tankers website and there we found confirmation that the company owned SEA JAGUAR. On their website, we navigated to the fleet list and from that list we were able to confirm that SEA JAGUAR is one of Pantheon’s ships. From this list, we can be relatively certain that Pantheon Tankers owns Sea Jaguar.

More often than not, however, finding the beneficiary owner will be more difficult. In many cases, the real owner is not listed as the ISM manager. In such cases, we need to do some Google dorking.

One method that worked for us was to take a previous name of the ship – in our case “Phoenix Advance” and use key words such as “sold” or “purchased”. Again, we can find the previous names of a ship on its profile in Equasis (see image above).

By searching using the previous name of the SEA JAGUAR – which was Phoenix Advance – we could identify who purchased the ship based on the public record of its sale. This is a much more effective search than using the current name, simply because there will usually be fewer records and less written about the ship under its newer name.

In our example, we got a bonus from our search, in that a blogpost about the sale of the Phoenix Advance stated that the transaction was dated July 13, the same day COBALT NAVIGATION SA was registered in the Marshall Islands. This helps to verify the information from the Pantheon website that Pantheon owns the ship in question. This step is also useful to later verify the beneficial ownership of a ship where the beneficiary owner is listed as the ISM manager.

Now for the labour intensive part

While finding the corporate owner of a vessel was doable, we now faced the arduous task of repeating this effort across more than 400 identified vessels in our dataset.  The quickest or most effective way to do this was to organize it in two rounds.

In the first round we went through our dataset of ships identifying the beneficial owners using the techniques described above. But we focused on only identifying the names of the beneficial owners and their county of domicile (country of company registration). We added the company names and countries to the dataset. This allowed us to sort through the dataset looking for ships controlled by a common owner or, to put it another way, to look for companies that owned fleets of ships. In round two we could then look at these companies more closely and add verification links and sources to the dataset. In a number of cases, we wrote to the companies concerned asking for confirmation of ownership of a particular ship: most did not reply and if they did reply they stated they were not in a position to discuss commercial activities.

Accuracy and limitation of this research

Often it seems the shipping industry is designed to evade corporate responsibilities. As such, free open-source information can only get one so far. There was no possibility for this project to access company documents for any ships registered in offshore havens. It would not have been feasible to pay a third-party company such as Lloyds Intelligence to compile a report either. By relying on open-source, we need to specify that there is a margin for error.

Based on these two rounds of searches, we ended up with a dataset of companies which owned vessels shipping Russian oil or gas. We then ranked these results by level of confidence based on our verification efforts. We kept the ranking simple:

High confidence:

The company identified as the beneficiary owner is a ship-owning company and lists the ship as their own on their website. In some cases, we found enough additional information, such as the purchase of the vessel reported by industry media, to add a high confidence. In other cases, we were able to find annual reports or company documents discussing the purchase of a ship.

Medium confidence:

The company associated with a vessel is a ship-owning company but we cannot independently confirm via open sources the ownership of a particular vessel by the associated company or any other company. This is often the case for newly acquired ships or ship companies with little to no public profile.

Low confidence:

Little to no information can be found about the company. Little to no information can be found about the vessel.

In at In the end, our dataset ended up looking like this:

Dataset and Sources

You can find the data set here.

Thanks to Greenpeace for creating the Tanker Tracker Bot. This research would not have been possible without the creation of the Twitter Bot @RUTankerTracker.

Any questions can be sent to robin@investigationlab.org or find me on Twitter.