Saturday, 12 March 2011

Chirac Leads Calls to Outlaw Single-hull Tankers After Spate of Accidents

The French president, Jacques Chirac, last night led the calls for dangerous tankers to be outlawed as the sinking of the Prestige threatened an environmental catastrophe.

His call for "draconian" maritime safety measures came as it emerged that the vessel is one of four single-hull tankers built in Japan in the the 1970s which have sunk in recent years, and was repaired after its hull was found to be defective in 2001.

Out of a global fleet of 1,800 oil tankers, there are still 300 which were built in Japan before 1980 with low-quality steel. Single-hull tankers, from all nations, comprise 60% of the world fleet.

But despite the huge political fall-out and outcry from environmental groups, there was skepticism last night about whether outdated tankers would be taken out of service any more quickly.

David Osler, of Lloyd's List shipping newspaper, said that opposition from the powerful shipping and oil lobbies would make it difficult to speed up the process of retiring old-fashioned tankers operating around the world. Some single-hull tankers have been given special dispensation to continue operating until 2015.

Mr Osler said: "Action would have to be taken through the International Maritime Organization, a UN agency which is notoriously bureaucratic. It takes months for them just to arrange a meeting. I can't see them speeding the process up."

The European commission has said that old tankers, which are not protected by a double hull, should disappear from the seas around Europe within two years. The French maritime affairs minister, Gilles de Robien, said yesterday that there needs to be the "European will" to minimize the threat of dangerous tankers.

Mr Chirac criticized the "inability of officials - in particular European, to take the necessary measures to fight against the laxity that allows the development of these garbage ships".

Mr Osler said that it would be more difficult to get cooperation across the world for quicker action even if Europe moved more quickly.

He added: "There will be a gradual phasing out of these tankers. The shipping industry would create merry hell if they were immediately outlawed. The shipping lobby is still extremely powerful and the oil industry is dependent on these tankers. We are talking about capitalism here."

The Erika, which sank off northern France in December 1999, was also a single-hull tanker built in Japan in the 1970s. The Aegean Sea, also launched in Japan, in 1973, sank off northern Spain in December 1992. The Braer, launched in Japan in January 1975, sank near the Shetlands in January 1993.

After the sinking of the Erika, the French pressed to have the Japanese-built single-hull tankers removed from service but there was opposition from the shipping lobby.

The 162-member International Maritime Organization, based in London, did agree the accelerated phasing out of single-hull tankers, which comes into force next summer.

The EU strengthened its rules on maritime transportation in 2001, calling for the progressive replacement of single-hull tankers with twin-hulled craft.

The Prestige, launched in Japan in 1976, is thought to have split apart along the lines of a weld repair carried out in a Chinese dockyard. The ship is believed to have been responsible for another oil spill off Texas in 1993.

The hull was reportedly found to be defective 18 months ago with the result that inspectors from the ship's certifying agency, the American Bureau of Shipping, ordered major repairs.

The 243-meter Prestige was built in 1976 at Japan's Hitachi Zosen shipyard. It is managed by Universe Maritime, a Liberian-registered company based in Athens. The Prestige regularly transported oil from Baltic and Russian ports to the far east.