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May 2011

Searchlight Feature - 2nd May 2011

CAN WE BELIEVE THE PUBLISHED OIL POLLUTION FIGURES?

ITOPF – The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation has recently published its audit of the amount of oil spilled by ships in 2010 which indicates the figure continues to reduce as it has done continuously since the mid 1970’s. There are a number of factors which have contributed to this good news. The largest one was probably the revulsion of the public at large to oil spills, spurring on politicians to do something about the problem. This resulted in ever tougher legislation against the polluter in the form of fines, prison sentences and having to pay compensation for the cleanup operations as well as financially compensating people who were directly affected by oil spills. Another major factor is the introduction of OPA 90 by the U.S. government which led to the introduction of double hulled tankers. The majority of tankers now are double hulled as more and more of the single hulled tankers are phased out and scrapped.

The total amount of oil lost to the environment in 2010 shows an increase against figures for 2008 and 2009 but is significantly lower than the average oil lost in previous decades. Furthermore, at 10,000 tonnes spilt, this is the fourth lowest annually recorded figure.  All recorded oil spills in 2010 amounted to a total of 10,000 tonnes

ITOPF Tanker Spill Statistics 2010

Graph7

Number of large spills (over 700 tonnes) from 1970 to 2010

The Oil Tanker Spill Statistics for 2010 shows a steady low level of recorded spills, following-on from recent years.

For 2010, four large spills were recorded. Although an increase on the figures for 2008 and 2009, this represents a minor deviation from the average of 3.3 spills per year in the previous decade (2000-2009) as a whole. Four medium spills were also recorded in 2010, representing the lowest annual figure recorded for this category. The total of all spills over 7 tonnes for 2010 shows no change against 2009 and is a significant reduction compared to the average for the previous decade.

Whilst tanker traffic continues to exhibit an overall increase in terms of tonne-miles, it is encouraging to observe that the overall downward trend in oil spills continues.

This is all good news which the public at large do not hear about – because it is not reported in the general press – why? – because it is not sensationalism, and does not help to sell their publications. Not only that but the vociferous fringe groups of extreme environmentalists would soon act to ensure any publication would not last long that published such information because such information acts contrary to these groups agenda of forecasting “doom and gloom”

At a world production of approximately 12.5 million tonnes of crude per day this oil spill amounts to approximately 27.4 tonnes per day or put another way – for every tonne of oil produced it amounts to a loss of 0.0022kg or 2.2g – a minute amount! Since nearly 50% of oil is by overland pipeline the actual amount spilled at sea is probably much less but the spillage per tonne of oil transported would remain similar.

But is it all good news? It is known in the industry that oil spills are most probably under reported. For instance an oil spill the writer was privy to recently is a case in point. The spill was such that part of the side of a VLCC of approximately 80mtr in length by 20mtr deep was totally bathed in oil, with the spill streaming down the side of the vessel in that area – as a rough and conservative calculation at least 2000 litres were spilled but it could have been ten times that figure. It was reported to be a loss of 200ltr – and all parties agreed with the figure – even Flag State and Class. A figure which was 10 times to 100 times less than actual! When it was pointed out that the figure could not possibly be correct the person was told not to make waves, not to talk about it and certainly not put such a thing in an email. It was not mentioned in the minutes of a meeting. This is not unique – it goes on all the time. Why is under estimating of oil spills acceptable to all parties involved in this field? It makes a mockery of the statistics. Whilst one does not doubt the oil spill statistics show a continual decrease the actual oil pollution is no doubt greater than what is actually reported, but this has most probably been the case for many years – i.e. each year the actual pollution by oil has been greater than reported so the reducing rates of oil spills may be near correct but the actual amounts are almost certainly greater.

In shipping and particularly within the tanker fleets discussion of oil pollution is such a taboo subject that the majority of persons are fearful of questioning any related statistic for the above mention reason. There are no open discussions on the subject, partly because oil pollution can lead to imprisonment and / or heavy fines of the Master and / or the C/E of any vessel causing what the courts consider ‘deliberate pollution’. Both the US and the EU now consider the Master and / or C/E of any polluting vessel guilty until proven innocent – they are retained within the country where the pollution has taken place until their trial – which can be years. The Master of the Prestige, Capt. Apostolos Mangouras, was detained in Spain for over two years when he was 68 years of age. Very few Master or C/E’s would deliberately pollute yet they are treated as the ‘bad guys’ in almost every major oil spill. In the case of the Prestige the true guilty party was the Spanish government since they refused to grant the Master port of refuge and turned the vessel away from the coast into an Atlantic winter storm, as soon as this happened the vessel was doomed. Had it been granted a port of refuge such pollution would almost certainly not have occurred. But who is putting the Spanish government on trial??

We need to get back to open discussion on the subject instead of each involved party kidding themselves and others because in reality by kidding themselves they will not do more to really tackle the problems more vigorously.