Climate

The Twitter bot tracking Russian oil and gas tankers in real time

Greenpeace is using ship traffic data to track the movements of Russian oil tankers.

Greenpeace activists in a small skiff alongside an oil tanker from Russia tagged with "oil fuels war."

Greenpeace's tracker bot helps activists intercept Russian oil tankers bound for port, including this group near the Danish port of Rotterdam.

© Axel Heimken / Greenpeace

In the days after the U.S. banned imports of Russian oil and gas, Audrey Uhlmann and her team took to their keyboards. Inspired by the Russian Oligarch Jets tracker on Twitter, she and her team of data scientists at Greenpeace U.K. created a similar tool, but for tracking the movements of tankers transporting Russian oil around the globe.

The U.S. ban on imports has a 45-day wind-down period for existing contracts, and the sector is taking advantage accordingly. Per the tool’s data, roughly 10 tankers have arrived in the U.S. from Russia since the ban went into effect on March 8. And at present, there are at least six vessels en route from Russia to the U.S. that are due to arrive by mid-April. Somewhat poetically, the grace period ends on April 22: Earth Day.

In detailing when and where Russian oil tankers are moving, Greenpeace’s tracker gives the public a tool for holding the U.S. and other governments that have committed to banning Russian oil and gas to account.

“That’s a really important hypocrisy to highlight politically,” Georgia Whitaker, an oil campaigner at Greenpeace U.K., told Protocol. “Politicians are saying all the right things, but they’re not necessarily putting that into action. Every tanker that arrives is funding a war.”

The project, immortalized in a Twitter bot that updates automatically, relies on publicly available data from Marine Traffic API services. That data comes from ships’ onboard computers and tracking devices, and includes information on their identification, position and — crucially — destination.

According to Uhlmann, who leads Greenpeace U.K.’s data science team, the group began by compiling a short list of Russian oil and gas terminals. Using Marine Traffic’s API services, the team identifies vessels departing from those terminals every 15 minutes, and pulls position reports every two hours. While the project initially only monitored massive supertankers, in the last week it has expanded to include tankers that carry as little as 10,000 tons of oil. (To be clear, that’s still a lot of oil.)

Once the team pulls the data, it is then pushed to Twitter. The account’s pinned tweet notes that tracking supertankers is more inconsistent than tracking private jets, because “vessels leave ports without a destination, change destinations en route or simply wait at sea for orders.” However, Uhlmann said the organization has not noticed any major issues with the data so far.

Greenpeace also uses paid services, which include the Bloomberg Terminal and Refinitiv, to ascertain both the nature of a ship’s cargo and its final destination. However, Uhlmann noted in an emailed statement, “some of the commercial sources of data are prohibitively expensive as they are essentially purchased by financial markets professionals, which makes it harder for individual activists or small NGOs to get access to.”

While Greenpeace has often used data and technology in its past investigations, Uhlmann said the use of open-source or commercially available data in service of the organization’s activism has increased dramatically in the last several years. In doing so, the 50-year-old organization created a decidedly 21st century way of supplementing its on-the-ground activism.

The tracker is just two weeks old and remains in beta, but it has already aided action at sea, as well as at the docks where these supertankers arrive. Activists joined a dockworkers union and managed to divert a tanker that was coming into Sweden; Greenpeace has spoken with that same union about potentially going on strike if they are asked to unload any fossil fuels from Russia.

This week, Greenpeace activists protested the arrival of a Russian tanker in New York, ahead of the end of the grace period. In a similar effort, a group of Nordic activists paddled small boats and even swam to confront two supertankers coming from Russia and to call upon Europe to reject the imports of fossil fuels earlier this month.

The tracker could also play an increasingly important role in turning the politics more forcefully against Russian oil and gas. The U.S. and Canada are among the countries that have already banned imports. The U.K. has also announced a ban on oil imports from Russia, which it plans to phase in by the end of the 2022.

Meanwhile, the EU is grappling with how to deal with Russian oil and gas, which it’s heavily reliant on. On Thursday, the continent’s leaders debated whether to stop buying oil and gas from Russia. While they ultimately decided to hold off for now, support for doing so among European leaders is reportedly continuing to mount as the war in Ukraine continues to take a massive humanitarian toll.

However, Whitaker said that politicians have been wary of the immediate impacts of doing so. Fuel prices are already surging, and turning off the tap of Russian imports could stir more public upset without an alternative source of energy (or measures to reduce demand) at hand.

“My suspicion is that as time moves on — and as countries have implemented their own plans and found more domestic supply or found something from other countries outside of Russia — we may have a lot more leverage politically in using this tracker,” she said. Essentially, at a certain point, the benefits of cracking down on Russian fuel imports may outweigh the costs.

Whitaker hopes the move away from Russian fossil fuel imports as a consequence of the war encourages a transition to renewable energy, which she said is vital not only for addressing the climate crisis, but also “for peace and making sure that we're not reliant on countries with human rights abuses, or who have waged a war on a country without provocation.”

While that transition has been slow-going so far, the invasion of Ukraine has brought home the need to accelerate it. And with Greenpeace’s tracker and other tools like it, it never has never been so easy to monitor the flows of the fossil fuels both financing the war and standing in the way of the clean energy revolution.

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