European Commission sets the stage for tighter control of oil tankers

A range of measures to reduce the risk of oil spills within EU waters has been published in a Communication from the EC. The move is a direct reaction to the Erika spill off the Brittany coast last December.

Citing America’s tightening of maritime safety standards after the Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska in 1989, the EC justified its proposed new regulations by arguing that the “application of the current international legal framework including International Maritime Organisation [IMO] rule falls short of providing an adequate response to maritime safety”.

The IMO disputes the EC insinuation that lax regulations are to blame for the Erika spill, suggesting instead that it is lax enforcement of those regulations that is the problem. “Why did the Erika accident happen? It wasn’t the regulations but the inspections that didn’t find the problem,” an IMO spokesperson told edie. IMO is worried that there are ever more inspections of ships, but that many of them are superficial. “What we’re seeing now are lots of inspections, all of which are rather cursory,” says the spokesperson (see related story).

The EC’s Communication sets out the following proposals for reducing the risk of spills in its waters:

  • ban on ships over 15 years if they have been detained by Port State Control authorities more than twice in the previous two years – with the EC publishing a ‘black list’ every six months
  • older ships’ ballast tanks would be inspected
  • EU member states would commit themselves to improving inspection systems and to avoid developing ‘ports of convenience’
  • classification societies, which inspect the structural soundness of ships, would have their licenses suspended or revoked if they were found to be negligent and stricter criteria would be introduced for licensing such societies
  • ban on oil tankers with a single hull

The proposed ban on single hull oil tankers follows in the footsteps of the US which instituted a similar ban after Exxon Valdez. The EC argues that “it also strongly supports any endeavours aimed at achieving this … at international level as well [and asserts that] it is recognised between the major shipbuilding associations that for the foreseeable future there is sufficient building capacity to cope with the increased demand for new double hull tankers that will emerge from the Commission’s proposal”.

The IMO is opposed to the EC’s proposed ban on single hull tankers, arguing that “with a double hull, once the first hull goes the second hull will, too,” says the spokesperson. “Where are the single hull ships going to go? They’re going to go to Africa or Asia.”

“The IMO feels that if the regulations are going to be changed they should be changed within the context of the IMO. The last thing we need is a proliferation of national and regional regulations,” says the spokesperson, who points out that “the Europeans were very opposed to the US introducing its own national regulations at the time”.

Also contained in the EC Communication is a request that “in order to avoid any further disasters like the Erika [see related story], the Commission, without waiting for the proposed legislation to be adopted, calls on the petrol companies to enter into a voluntary agreement not to charter tankers more than 15 years of age, unless they are shown to be in satisfactory condition”.

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