“Dirty Diesel” – How Swiss Traders Flood Africa with Toxic Fuels

Swiss traders and «African Quality»

The conquest of the fuel pump

Surely you must know BP, Shell, or Total. But are you familiar with Vitol or Trafigura ? The fact is, these Swiss commodity trading companies have become major players in their field. In 2015, Vitol generated a turnover of 168 billion dollars and operates a significantly larger fleet of oil tankers than BP or Shell. In 2013, Trafigura was the largest foreign business operating in Africa, the company’s most important market after Europe. Over the course of the last five years, these two companies have bought up entire networks of petrol stations in numerous African countries. The reason hardly anyone knows this is due to the fact that these companies are exceedingly discreet in the way they do business. They do not market their fuel under their own name.

The gas stations in which Vitol is a partner bear the well known Shell logo, while Trafigura operates under the name of Puma Energy. Only the smallest among the three Geneva-based traders, the Addax&Oryx Group, actually puts its name on the fuel pumps: „Oryx Energies“.

Petrol stations in Africa operated by Swiss traders

Testing what comes out of the pump

Just how dirty is the gasoline and diesel sold by these Swiss companies at African petrol stations? There’s only one way to find out: analyzing the fuel that comes out of these pumps. And that’s what we did. We took diesel and gasoline samples from 25 petrol stations in eight countries and had them tested by an internationally renowned laboratory.

The results are shocking: whether in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Mali, or Senegal, the sulphur content of diesel was invariably hundreds of times higher than the European limit. The most toxic sample, from an Oryx petrol station in Mali, had a sulphur content that was 378 times higher than the European limit of 10 ppm (parts per million). Not one drop of the fuel we analyzed could be sold in Europe.

Sulphur content of analyzed diesel samples (in parts per million / ppm)
The most toxic sample showed a sulphur content 378 times higher than the European norm of 10 ppm.

Sulphur is not the only toxic substance in African fuel. We found other harmful substances in concentrations banned in Europe such as benzene or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Because fuel standards in these African countries are so lax, Swiss companies are operating within the law. Nonetheless, their business model is illegitimate because it blithely ignores the health of people living in these countries. According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights companies must respect human rights and thus the right to health regardless of the rules that apply in the respective countries.

Supplying dirty fuel from clean Europe

That Africa should be flooded with toxic fuel is even more absurd given that West Africa produces top quality crude oil with very low sulphur content. However, because most West African countries do not have their own refineries or because their capacities are insufficient to process their premium crude, most of it is exported to Europe or elsewhere. Meanwhile these same countries import toxic fuels from Europe, in fact mostly from a very specific region around Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp, known as ARA-region.

The more toxic the cargo, the more likely it is that the tanker is headed for Africa

From the ports of these cities, fuel is shipped all over the world. The more toxic the cargo, the more likely it is that the tanker is headed for Africa. 80 percent of diesel destined for Africa has a sulphur content that is at least a hundred times higher than what is permitted in Europe. If it contains „African Quality“, Europe most likely had a hand in it.

Our research shows that Swiss commodity trading companies dominate maritime trade between the ARA-region and West Africa: they accounted for 61 percent of the 133 cargoes that we could clearly identify on this route in 2014.

Diesel exports from the ARA-region by sulphur content and destination

Blending: Poison for Africa – made in Switzerland

The Swiss commodity trading companies have invested heavily in the ARA-region, buying fuel depots and refineries. No longer satisfied with their role as mere traders who deliver and market these dirty fuels, the Swiss companies now even produce their own! They exploit lax African regulatory standards to blend low quality toxic fuels for these markets.

This is how it works:

Diesel and gasoline do not flow out of refineries as finished products; they consist of various blendstocks. Traders buy intermediate products of varying quality and mix them into fuels. This is called blending. Blending usually happens on land but it can be done on board of tankers at sea as well. Traders can blend products to precise specifications, depending on the desired quality and the regulatory standards of the country of destination. The result of all this: relatively clean fuel for Europe, dirty fuel for Africa.

Blending of “African Quality” fuels

Blending intermediate products in fuel production is normal and legitimate. The business model transcends legitimacy when traders become poisoners and produce „African quality“ by using low quality, toxic blendstocks to produce fuel. Occasionally, blendstocks from the chemical or recycling industries are mixed in as well. To maximize their profits, these companies produce diesel and gasoline in Europe which could never be sold there. It doesn’t have to be this way: the toxic blendstocks could and should be desulphurized and processed into clean fuel.

© Photography: Fabian Biasio, 2016
© Photography: Carl De Keyzer, Magnum, 2016

End the dirty fuel business now.