Twenty-five years ago on this day, a supertanker carrying over 200 million litres of crude oil ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, resulting in one of the most publicized environmental tragedies in history. Within five hours of the incident, over 40 million litres of oil had spilled from the ruptured vessel, the Exxon Valdez, ultimately polluting nearly 2,000 km of coastline.
In the weeks and months following the spill, numerous contributing factors were identified. While human error was believed to have played a major role in the accident, inadequate response capabilities and the vessel’s single hulled design also contributed to the magnitude of the spill.
The event was a critical, albeit retrospective turning point for tanker safety in the United States and around the world. Following the catastrophe, U.S. Congress introduced the Oil Pollution Act; legislation which required better contingency plans and safer ship design. In 1992, the international community followed suit, improving safety standards for the global tanker fleet by making double hulled design mandatory for all large tankers. Ironically, in 1973 when the pipeline from Northern Alaska to Valdez was first approved, the oil industry and the U.S. government promised to make safety a priority, supporting some of these tighter safety requirements that failed to materialise until after the Exxon Valdez incident.
In Canada, we are faced with serious and growing risks of a tanker spill. In a report released recently by Transport Canada, the southern coast of British Columbia topped a nation-wide list of places with the highest risk of a large oil spill. US president Barack Obama has already signalled his concern about impacts to U.S. waters and ordered the U.S. Coast Guard to conduct its own risk assessment.
With two proposed pipelines on the table in BC, leading to a projected six-fold increase in tanker traffic in southern BC alone, the public is looking to the provincial and federal governments to reduce the risk of a spill. Global standards for tanker safety put in place after the Exxon Valdez disaster offer a starting point for spill prevention; we need to go beyond minimum requirements to protect our coastlines.
As we found during our research at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre, published last month in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, flag use behaviour is one area where stronger controls could lower the risk of a spill. Under international maritime law, vessels fly the flag of the State to which they are registered. This requirement is intended to assure that regardless of where they operate, every vessel is held accountable to laws and regulations regarding conduct at sea in areas such as human rights, safety, and environmental performance.
But vessel owners are not required to register their vessels under the flag of the country that they are from or even demonstrate any kind of affiliation with their flag State. ‘Flags of Convenience’ (FoCs) offer an unusual loophole to vessel owners that have drawn international criticism since as far back as the 1950s for their role in labour abuses. More recently, they have also been implicated in illegal fishing activities, arms trade and terrorism and tanker spills. And while concern about FoCs in some sectors is growing, so is their use: of all new ocean-going vessels registered in 2011, 83 per cent used foreign flags.
There are many reasons why a vessel owner would choose to register their tanker with a country other than their own: cheaper registration fees, low or no taxes and freedom to employ cheap labour are a few of the motivating factors. Countries such as Liberia, Panama and the Bahamas offer havens to vessel owners seeking to minimize costs and skirt requirements enforced by other countries. Bizarrely, even some landlocked countries, like Mongolia (which has 29 registered tankers), issue flags to foreign vessels operating in international waters.
For over half a century, the International Transport Worker’s Federation (ITF) has been campaigning against the use of FoCs. Taking into consideration the degree of foreign flag registration as well as the ability and willingness of flag States to enforce minimum social, safety and environmental standards, the ITF has identified 34 ‘FoC Countries’ that they view to be particularly concerning. In the fall-out from the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, the Marshall Islands (a country included on this list) was implicated in the failure to oversee safety standards on the oil rig. Owned by Transocean and operated under lease to petroleum producer BP, the rig was registered to the tiny group of islands inhabited by only 65,000 people. The explosion and oil spill that resulted, in part, due to the failure in oversight caused $8.7 billion in losses to fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico alone.
The news is not all bad: lessons have been learned from past catastrophes such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Both the number of oil spills caused by tankers and the total volume of oil spilled worldwide has fallen over the past 50 years. International agreements and organizations have played a major role in bringing these numbers down.
If federal and provincial governments are serious about ensuring “world-class” oil spill prevention is in place to avoid catastrophic losses to the BC economy resulting from a spill, tanker owners must be pressured to register their vessels under flag States that demonstrate high standards of safety and pollution avoidance.
Ngaio Hotte is a Fisheries Economist at the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre. Dr. Dana Miller is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Fisheries Centre. Dr. Rashid Sumaila is the Director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the Fisheries Centre.