Prevention better than cure for oil spills

Preparedness and prevention are equally important as the oil spill cleanup industry's ability to minimise the impact of spills once they have occurred - this was a key message at this week's Interspill conference in London's Docklands.

Both Transport Secretary Alistair Darling and the Lloyd’s list’s Michael Grey, a respected commentator and lecturer on marine issues, spoke of the recent successes in reducing oil spills both in the UK and globally but warned against complacency and of challenges that would face the industry in years to come.

“In some ways you represent an industry we wish wasn’t necessary but it is because of disasters and oil spills at sea and other accidents on land that you are here,” Mr Darling told delegates.

“It is important that right across the world we work together and improve our skills and ability to deal with both marine and inland skills because pollution can affect all of us.”

Better contingency planning and preparation was always needed, he said, before outlining a number of measures Government had taken to reduce the risk of spills in British waters and reducing their impact when they did occur.

Mr Grey said we must be cautious about burying our heads in the sand and congratulating ourselves too quickly on the fact that the amount of oil being spilled around the world is steadily falling.

“There’s a very human reluctance to anticipate the worst that might befall us and hope that it won’t,” he said.

“It’s standard human behaviour – we’d much rather not think about what might happen and object to putting money up front in case it might and wait until it happens before doing anything.

“We do it in our own homes, commercial enterprises and governments do it, so why should the marine industry be any differently?”

Because, he argued, the world was changing and people were becoming increasingly aware and concerned about environmental issues.

“Today we’re less tolerant of accidents, and less prepared to accept their consequences than earlier generations were,” he said.

“These days we look on their response as stoic if we are generous and simpleminded if we are not.

“Our societal demands for punitive measures against those who spill is being reflected in legislation and sentencing.”

But, he said, it was difficult to decide exactly who would foot the bill for all the contingency plans, and increased safety measures.

“The polluter pays principle has largely stood the test of time but doesn’t easily transfer to who should pay for preparedness,” he said.

“Insurers need to be more aware of the capabilities of responders and perhaps work with them more closely and professionals must persuade investors and governments that funding is needed.

“There needs to be a better understanding that prevention and preparedness are a worthwhile investment that will minimise the need for response.”

Looking to the future, Mr Grey highlighted a number of factors that might put a dent in the oil and shipping industry’s improving record on spills and also acknowledged that no matter how good your preparation, disasters would always happen.

He said the easy energy was coming to an end and people were looking towards oil and gas from more isolated and hostile environments.

It was easy to sea the difficulties that might face a cleanup operation if a tanker ran aground in the icy northern seas of Russia and the Baltic states, or if a distant pipeline was breached far from any response centre.

Larger tankers meant we were effectively putting all our eggs in one basket and increased shipping of liquefied petroleum and natural gas presented their own problems.

The increased global threat of terrorism also had implications for the industry, he argued.

“International terrorists doubtless look with some interest at our techniques of transporting and storing of highly flammable materials,” he said.

“Along with the economic and social consequences of an attack on a pipeline, tanker or storage depot.”

And it was impossible to overlook the fact that the globalisation meant more international trade but also more risks, particularly in the developing world.

“Are we really prepared for new and different risks?” he said.

“Are we sufficiently committed to a global spread of best practice? Or is there a second class service for the developed world?”

Interspill took place at the ExCel conference centre in London’s Docklands from Tuesday, March 20 to Thursday, March 21.

by Sam Bond

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