Regulating Oil Tankers

The rusty, 26-year-old tanker "Prestige" that split in two and sank off the Spanish coast this week will serve as a reminder that the world still needs more stringent regulation of these oil-laden behemoths of the sea. Single-hull ships carrying such hazardous cargo need closer inspections and quicker removal from service.

The Prestige was carrying 24 million gallons of fuel - twice the amount as carried by the Exxon Valdez in that 1989 ecological disaster off Alaska - when it developed a crack in its hull during a storm near Spain's fishing grounds.

For now, the bulk of the oil remains contained in the sunken ship more than 100 miles out to sea, where, hopefully, the cold water will turn the remaining fuel into a solid, and keep the rest from leaking. That outcome is far from certain, however. Crews already are trying to contain a 20-mile slick and clean up 125 miles of blackened coastline.

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Sadly, the fingerpointing over who's to blame and who will pay cleanup costs has begun. Spain is under criticism for not taking the ship to a cove where its oil might have been pumped out, and spills contained.

Four such single-hulled ships have sunk in recent years. The transition to double-hull-only tankers, set for 2015 within the European Union, needs review. Tough new inspection regulations by the EU are not required to begin until July. They should be moved up sooner.

Further, a closer look at shippers' widespread practice of saving money by hiring poorly trained crews and registering vessels in tax havens such as the Bahamas, as the Prestige was, ought to happen sooner than later. Indeed, this ship, owned by Liberia, was chartered by a Swiss company and under Greek command when it sank, making enforcing maritime laws difficult.

Governments should move swiftly (as they do when a problem is detected on a particular kind of aircraft) to inspect the ships, starting with the oldest ones first, and make necessary refinements as quickly as possible.

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