Speaking at the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston on the morning of 7 March 2022, Patrick Pouyanné, chief executive of TotalEnergies, was clear.

Referring to the invasion of Ukraine, which had begun in earnest on 24 February, he reassured delegates:

My traders don’t take any more oil from Russia since the beginning of the crisis - Patrick Pouyanné

Pouyanné was speaking just after 11 a.m. in Texas. Two hours later, perhaps without his knowledge, an oil tanker chartered by a wholly-owned subsidiary of Total docked at the Primorsk oil terminal in western Russia, joining another ship which had docked at nearby Ust-Luga earlier in the day.

The latter ship, also chartered by Total, wasn’t just picking up Russian oil – it was owned and managed by Sovcomflot, a company which is in turn owned by the Russian state.

Screenshot 2022-03-17 at 17.53.37.png

The Lomonosov Prospect, a crude tanker owned by Sovcomflot, waits in icy seas near the Russian port of Ust-Luga on 5 March 2022. Satellite imagery © 2022 Maxar Technologies.

According to shipping data from the Refinitiv Eikon financial database and vessel movements from MarineTraffic and Spire, the ships took on more than 1.4 million barrels of Urals crude – worth a total of more than $150 million at the 7 March spot price – before undocking and setting off for Rotterdam on the night of 8–9 March. They unloaded their cargoes in Holland between 13 and 14 March. 

There is no suggestion that Total or its subsidiaries have violated sanctions or other laws by taking the shipments of Russian crude. But news of the near-simultaneous pick-up from two Baltic Sea ports raises questions about how seriously the French oil major – which produced 17% of its oil and gas from Russia in 2020 – has taken the international push to divest from the country.

On Tuesday, after being contacted by French newspaper Le Monde in relation to the shipments – and after a top economic adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused the company of "financing war crimes" – Total announced that it would halt oil purchases from Russia entirely by the end of the year.

The vessels involved in the shipments were the Penelop (International Maritime Organization number 9325908), flagged in the Bahamas, and the Lomonosov Prospect (IMO 9826732), flagged in Liberia.

Each ship picked up 100,000 tonnes of Urals crude and was chartered by CSSSA – sometimes known as CSSA Chartering & Shipping – a wholly-owned subsidiary of TotalEnergies. The Lomonosov Prospect is owned and managed by Sovcomflot, a company in which the Russian government holds an 82.8% stake.

Follow the tankers Total chartered

Source: Spire Maritime

Responding to a request for a comment on the shipments, a spokesperson for TotalEnergies said: 

“Since March 1st, our position is that TotalEnergies will no longer provide capital for new projects in Russia, and that TotalEnergies supports the scope and strength of the sanctions put in place by Europe and will implement them regardless of the consequences (currently being assessed) on its activities in Russia.”

Following publication of this story, the company added the following clarification:

"As clearly shared in our press statement as of 22 March 2022, TotalEnergies has term contracts to purchase Russian oil and petroleum products that end, at the very latest, on December 31, 2022. These contracts will not be renewed. The cargoes you refer to are part of these term contracts, and there is therefore absolutely no contradiction on the part of TotalEnergies, as you wrongly imply."

Louis Goddard, Senior Data Investigations Adviser at Global Witness, said:

It’s unsurprising that Total is continuing to ship Russian oil, despite the clear evidence that oil and gas is funding Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. - Louis Goddard

“Total is the epitome of what we have come to expect from the fossil fuel sector. In the face of decades of evidence of devastating environmental impact and now against a backdrop of civilians being slaughtered, fossil fuel companies like Total are all too ready to continue with business as usual. Forget human rights abuses, forget extremities of weather that are destroying communities across the world, forget the children hiding in bunkers from Russian bombs in Ukraine, if there's a profit to be made, you can bet the fossil fuel industry will be there to capitalise on it.

“When will the French Government act to rein in Total? President Macron should be leading efforts across the EU to end reliance on fossil fuels, cut off the capital from these appalling companies, and focus on bringing in a new global era of renewable energy.” 

Sovcomflot did not respond to a request for comment.