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U.S. judge signs order to seize Kurdish oil from tanker off Texas

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[July 29, 2014]  By Terry Wade and Supriya Kurane
 
 HOUSTON (Reuters) - Acting on a request from the central government in Iraq, a U.S. judge has signed an order telling the U.S. Marshals Service to seize a cargo of oil from Iraqi Kurdistan aboard a tanker off the Texas coast, court filings showed on Tuesday.

The United Kalavrvta tanker, carrying some 1 million barrels of crude worth about $100 million, arrived near Galveston Bay on Saturday but has yet to unload its disputed cargo. The ship, which is too large to enter ports near Houston and dock, was given clearance by the U.S. Coast Guard on Sunday to transfer its cargo offshore to smaller boats that would deliver it to the U.S. mainland.

But Iraq's central government, in a court filing on Monday, laid claim to the cargo that it says was sold by the regional government of Kurdistan without permission from Baghdad, which has said such deals amount to smuggling.

To carry out the order from Magistrate Judge Nancy K. Johnson of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, the Marshals Service may need to rely on companies that provide crude offloading services.

The judge's order said the vessel would be allowed free movement after the cargo is unloaded.

The U.S. State Department has expressed fears that independent oil sales from Kurdistan could contribute to the breakup of Iraq, has said the oil belongs to all Iraqis, and warned potential buyers of legal risks.

But it has also made clear it will not intervene in a commercial transaction.

The filings on Monday did not name the end-buyer of the cargo in the United States. AET Offshore Services, a company in Texas that had been hired to unload the tanker for the buyer, asked in a separate court filing whether Iraq's claims were valid.

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Piecemeal oil exports have gone from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey and Iran by truck in the past, which Baghdad also opposed. But the opening of a new pipeline to Turkey earlier this year, which could supply the Kurds with far greater revenues, has met much fiercer opposition from Baghdad.

One cargo of Kurdish crude was delivered in Houston in May to an unidentified buyer, and four other cargoes of Kurdish crude have been delivered this year in Israel.

The case is Ministry of Oil of the Republic of Iraq v. Ministry of Natural Resources of Kurdistan Regional Governate of Iraq et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas, No. 3:14-cv-00249.

(Reporting by Supriya Kurane in Bangalore and Terry Wade in Houston; Editing by Mark Potter and Dale Hudson)

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