Latest Tanker Disaster Reopens Debate on Oil Shipments

Even before the oil tanker “Prestige” went to the bottom of the Atlantic off the Spanish coast yesterday, calls were being made for a reexamination of the laws governing international shipping, especially for petroleum products.

The 26-year old single hulled “Prestige” was carrying around 70,000 metric tons of heavy grade fuel oil from a Latvian port to Singapore when it ran into heavy weather off the coast of Galicia that caused a crack in its hull. More than 4,000 tons of oil escaped, and washed up on the coast, causing authorities to halt fishing activities upon which much of the region depends.

For over three days salvage workers sought to save the ship, or at least transfer some of its cargo to a more seaworthy vessel, but were unable to do so. Neither Spanish nor Portuguese authorities, fearing a greater spill, would give permission to bring the stricken tanker close enough to shore to permit the unloading to take place. The “prestige” was eventually towed more than 60 miles off the coast, where rough seas prevented any further efforts at salvage.

Eventually it broke in two and sank to the bottom in 3600 meters (around 11,000 feet) of water. Experts are hopeful that the heavy crude will solidify at that depth, and not continue to leak from the ruptured tanks, but this is by no means certain.

This latest oil spill disaster comes three years after the “Erika” spilled 13,000 tons of heavy diesel fuel on the coast of Brittany, initiating a massive clean-up effort and raising calls for higher standards for oil tankers.

New rules requiring double hulls have been passed, but will not go into full effect until 2015. EU member countries, however, will ban deliveries by single hulled vessels in 2005. There are now calls for the timetable to be speeded up elsewhere.

There are also calls for more transparency in the shipping industry as well. Lloyd’s List described the “Prestige” as, “Flagged in the Bahamas, classed in America, owned and managed by Greek interests through a company registered in Liberia, chartered by a Swiss-based business with Russian links and manned by a multinational crew.” Under those circumstances it’s pretty hard to trace who might be ultimately responsible for the ship’s maintenance.

Trying to inspect and control the world’s tanker fleet remains a major problem, as long as cursory inspections and flags of convenience make it cheaper to use older and less seaworthy vessels to transport petroleum products.

While victims of the spill will eventually be entitled to compensation from the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds totaling $178 million, that will do little to restore the damaged ecology of the areas affected by the spill.