WHEN the oil tanker Braer broke up in wild January waters off Britain's Shetland Islands and spilled its entire cargo of 84,500 tons of crude, it posed disaster for the craggy, wildlife-rich region.
Yet like dark clouds at the end of a storm, the environmental catastrophe appears to have had a political silver lining.
The Braer accident - just a month after a similar disaster involving the tanker Aegean Sea off La Coruna, Spain - pushed the European Community toward tougher regulations on the sea transport of hazardous materials. The breakup, off a particularly sensitive ecological region, also fueled British protests that helped lead the British government to consider at last the kind of stiff EC transport regulation it has long resisted.
"Europe has succeeded in speaking with a single voice in a particularly sensitive domain," said French Environment Minister Segolene Royal, at the close of an emergency meeting of EC environment, transportation, and maritime ministers here last month. "Unfortunately it took a catastrophe" to get it done, she added.
The recommended measures include:
* A list of the Community's principal ecologically sensitive zones, where ship passage could be prohibited or more strictly controlled.
* Stricter control of "flags of convenience," or ships registered in countries suspected of low regulatory standards.
* Higher crew-training standards.
* Tighter inspection of ships entering EC ports, with a system for identifying - and eventually prohibiting "problem" ships from entering port.
* A system of sanctions for cargo owners who use ships found to have security infractions or poorly trained crews.
* A coordinated system of tugboats for quicker intervention in sea-going mishaps. (The Braer stalled and lost all power, before finally drifting under hurricane-force winds into the rocks. Some say immediate intervention might have saved the tanker).
The EC's executive commission is expected to turn the ministers' list of possible measures into directives that could be adopted within a few months - a timetable not everyone considers fast enough.
"The UK is playing its usual role of slowing things down," says Paul Horsman, an oil transport expert with the London office of Greenpeace, the environmental group. "The EC could have brought on measures like the exclusion zones with immediate effect if it had the political will."
The EC action comes against a backdrop of growing international concern over falling sea-transport standards. Environmental groups and some governments say ship owners facing hard economic conditions are taking advantage of widespread "laissez faire" sentiments toward regulation by disregarding safety rules and scrimping on crew standards and training.
This is far from the first time the EC has considered stricter sea-transport measures, Community sources note. But it is the first time countries like Britain and Greece have agreed to tougher Community action. Among 12 countries with varying interests, it is this newfound unanimity that is allowing proposals to finally move forward.
"We hadn't waited for these accidents to realize there was a real problem, but the Community does operate through consensus," says a Community environmental official. "It's fair to say we used these accidents to overcome some resistance."
OTHER officials note that the European Commission was already preparing a "green paper" on fixing responsibility in the transport of dangerous materials. The paper, due out next month, emphasizes a "he who pollutes, pays" principle, sources say. They add that the chances of such a paper making its way into Community legislation are strengthened by the recent spills.
While environmentalists are encouraged by the Community's new stance, there is disappointment the EC is not playing a larger international leadership role.
"The EC could require ships flying under its flags to respect a global system of exclusion zones," says Mr. Horsman, who says the world would soon follow the EC.
Yet some observers are doubtful that the proposed measures would have stopped the Aegean Sea or Braer disasters - or that they even address the worst problems of oceanic petroleum pollution.
The Aegean sea, which dumped 80,000 tons of crude on the Spanish coast, was a recently inspected and certified tanker - and it was double-hulled, a feature some EC countries including Germany has argued for, but which is not proposed.
But Community officials argue that the "human factor" played an important part in both accidents. "That's why it's important to emphasize measures on crew standards and training," says one transport official. "A different human response might have made things different."
Still, many observers say that despite the high profile of tanker disasters, a larger environmental problem results from the regular washing out of tanker holds - a problem the EC ministers did not take up.
Some experts estimate that more than 400,000 tons of petroleum were flushed into the world's oceans during such cleanings in 1990, while accidents released less than a third of that amount.
Greenpeace's Horsman says the EC's measures indicate some movement toward confronting the short-term problems, such as spills, posed by the international oil industry. "Unfortunately on the long-term issues like the use of oil worldwide or global warming, the EC has failed to bring them to the forefront."