European response to Prestige disaster causing concern in U.S.

A European Union proposal to accelerate the phase-out of single-hull oil tankers and ban these vessels from carrying heavy grades of oil is prompting worries that older, substandard ships could be shifted to U.S. waters.

Prestige leaves a trail of heavy oil before sinking off the coast of Spain. In response to the disaster, the European Union is considering accelerating the retirement of single-hull tankers.
   Image Credit: AP/World Wide Photos

“It’s just a fact of life that we’re going to get those older ships if they can’t trade there,” said Robert N. Cowen, about the EU proposal. Cowen is the chief operating officer of Overseas Shipholding Group Inc. of New York, which owns and operates 50 oil tankers, including 28 double-hull tankers.

In reaction to the sinking last November of the 26-year-old, 82,000-dwt oil tanker Prestige off the Spanish coast, the European Commission proposed several rules that would impact single-hull tankers. The EU proposal would:

• Restrict the transportation of heavy grades of oil to double-hull ships.

• Require special inspections for single-hull tankers 15 years or older.

• Accelerate the phase-out of single-hull tankers. The phase-out period would be between 2003 and 2009, rather than the 2003-to-2014 phase-out timetable contained in Marpol 13G.

The European Commission wants the European Parliament and Council to act on the measures at the end of March.

Prestige was carrying 77,000 metric tons of oil; it spilled as much as 20,000 metric tons before it broke in two and sank in waters 11,800 feet deep, about 135 miles off the coast of northwestern Spain.

After it sank, Prestige continued to leak an estimated 125 metric tons of oil daily. The French ocean research institute Ifremer used a mini-submarine, Nautile, to plug 17 of the 20 holes detected in the two pieces of the wreck, reducing the leakage to between one and two tons daily by the end of January. The Dutch shipping and salvage firm, Smit, has submitted a proposal to the Spanish government to entomb the wreck in concrete and pump out the remaining oil.

On Jan. 31, the International Association of Classification Societies audited the American Bureau of Shipping’s surveys of Prestige and found that surveyors failed to inspect the No. 2 aft port and starboard water ballast tanks, located next to heating coils in adjacent tanks, as required in its most recent survey in May 2002. The No. 2 starboard ballast tank was inspected in the vessel’s five-year special survey in April 2001. A 30- to 50-foot crack in the vessel’s starboard side caused the empty No. 2 aft starboard wing ballast tank and the No. 3 starboard wing cargo/ballast tank to flood, according to the ABS, which led to the vessels’ sinking.

Oil from Prestige has polluted hundreds of miles of coastline in Spain and France. The Spanish government estimated in January it would cost $1.05 billion to clean up its part of the spill.

Since the sinking, France, Spain and Portugal have already put in place regulations to keep single-hull tankers older than 15 years out of these countries’ 200-mile exclusive economic zones. U.S. Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., plans to introduce a bill that would ban all single-hull oil tankers in America, perhaps as early as 2005. And the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing on Jan. 9 to discuss the impact European actions would have on the United States.

Cowen believes that the EU proposal will result in more older oil tankers calling at American ports. “That’s what happens in the commercial world; they follow the path of least resistance,” Cowen said. If the EU bans or adopts rules restricting older tankers, “the United States becomes the port of last resort for these older vessels,” he said. “It’s imperative that we don’t allow our rules to fall behind the EU.”

Older oil tankers could still trade in the United States because of an exemption in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA ’90), which gradually phases out older single-hull tankers through 2010. But an exemption to OPA ’90 allows tankers over 25 years old to unload at designated lightering areas and deepwater ports until 2015. There are four designated lightering areas 60 miles off the coast. The deepwater port is the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, 18 miles off that state’s coast.

That exemption was thought to be acceptable since these older vessels would be traveling well away from the shore, decreasing the risk of running aground. “Now it’s a new world,” Cowen said. “I think Prestige tells us it’s not just the risk for grounding or collision; it’s the structural weaknesses that could be associated with a vessel that has been traveling the world for so many years. Those ships are not the ships you’d like to have trading along your shores.”

Cowen said that current U.S. rules already encourage older vessels to trade in American waters. In 2002, 56 single-hull very large crude carriers (VLCCs) 25 years of age or older made voyages to the Gulf Coast, but not a single vessel of this age discharged in Japan or Korea. Cowen said 50 percent of all 2002 spot liftings of VLCCs between 21 and 25 years old occurred in the Gulf Coast, and no vessels of this age discharged in the EU, Japan or Korea. “It’s not just the formal rules — you have practices in places like Japan,” he said. “They just simply discourage these ships from coming.”

The questions that should be asked about oil-tanker safety is not the age of a vessel, but whether it is seaworthy, according to Dennis L. Bryant, senior counsel at Holland & Knight, who specializes in maritime law. This involves working with tankers’ owners, the class societies, the charterers and the flag-state administration. And countries can help make sure that substandard vessels don’t trade in their waters by vigilant port-state-control inspections.

“I would say that the United States has a reputation for a fairly vigorous port-state-control program.” That reputation, according to Bryant, keeps most questionable tankers out of U.S. waters.

The U.S. Coast Guard inspects vessels that unload at the LOOP and the lightering zones. “It gets back to: Are the vessels that come to U.S. ports, to the LOOP and the offshore lightering zones seaworthy?” he said. “They seem to be.”

Bryant is not concerned that potential EU actions will lead to older tankers being moved into U.S. waters. In fact, the EU proposals won’t even eliminate substandard tankers from European waters, he said. The EU rules will not prevent older tankers from traveling through the region, from one non-EU port to another non-EU port, which is what Prestige was doing.

“It still comes down to port-state control,” he said. And France, which has led the post-Prestige lobbying for stricter rules on single-hull tankers, has the worst record in Europe when it comes to port-state-control inspections. In 2001, France only inspected 10 percent of the 5,792 ships that called in its ports, compared with an inspection rate of 29 percent for Portugal and 30 percent for Spain.

Bryant said that Europe complained when the United States toughened up oil-tanker regulations after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. “It is somewhat ironic that the Europeans, particularly the French, were amongst the most vocal opponents of the unilateral provisions of OPA ’90,” he said. At the time, the French said these issues should be handled on an international basis. “Now they’ve changed their tune.”

Whether the EU will follow through on the tough new measures remains to be seen. Many of the islands and remote areas of Europe are supplied by older, single-hull vessels. If an across-the-board ban on single-hull vessels carrying heavy oils were to pass, Bryant wonders how Europe would transport oil to places like the Italian islands of Sardinia and Sicily. “I think there are going to be some economic issues that come into play here,” Bryant said. “That’s where the political reality will set in.”

But Cowen said that in Europe, public anger over the Prestige disaster and concern about older oil tankers is intense. “I don’t see it lessening,” he said. “No matter what happens, I see action taking place.”

By Professional Mariner Staff