Slick arguments

The Prestige oil spill is not an ecological disaster - and far from the 'worst ever' spill.

Joe Kaplinsky

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Topics Politics

‘There are now increased fears of a massive ecological disaster in the area’, said the World Wide Fund for Nature as the Prestige oil tanker sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the north-western coast of Spain.

In fact, it appears that almost all the 70,000 tons of oil on board will remain at the bottom of the seabed, making the Prestige break-up a relatively small spill by historical standards (1).

Of course oil comes with problems. But a balanced assessment would find that the problems of oil are far outweighed by its benefits.

Furthermore, the long-term consequences for wildlife, even of larger oil spills, are not serious. Ecosystems have to be resilient and be able to bounce back from different disasters. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have survived millions of years of evolution.

The life of seabirds, whether ended by oil, disease, starvation or dashed to pieces in a storm, is brutish and short. According to Dr Paul Kingston of the Centre for Marine Diversity and Biotechnology at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh: ‘On a rocky shore, the animals don’t live very long anyway….Storms kill most of the animals every year so they’re adapted to recolonise very quickly.’ (2)

Even green writer Geoffrey Lean pointed out that the Prestige sinking is ‘unlikely to bear out the forecasts of ecological doom’ (3). Lean says that despite the desire of governments and green groups to be seen to be ‘taking action’, ‘they would almost always do better to do nothing and let nature deal with the pollution itself’ (though he did have a go at the ‘widespread contamination and pollution’ caused by man).

As man’s largest mobile creation, oil tankers are incredible constructions. Oil trade in tonne-miles rose throughout the 1990s, but pollution from accidents fell year on year. As a result of improved technology, like the double hulls built for all new tankers, even though more oil is now traded there are fewer spills (4).

Despite this improving record, demands for stricter regulation have grown over the past decade. After the Erika sank off the coast of France in 1999 the timetable to phase out single hull tankers like the Prestige was brought forward. Other recent regulations have demanded towing arrangements and automatic identification systems.

The Erika sinking led to tougher inspections. Recent agreements have quite reasonably increased the compensation payable to people who suffer after oil spills – but new European Union proposals go further, demanding compensation for damage to nature, a cost that is both unquantifiable and potentially unlimited.

The international nature of the shipping business seems to raise particular ire. ‘The tanker Prestige is registered in the Bahamas, owned by a Liberian company, managed in Greece, and carried oil for a company with a Swiss HQ, whose ultimate owners are Russian’, complained Friends of the Earth.

‘The complex web of ownership and international registration in this case might almost have been expressly designed to avoid any attempt to hold anyone liable for the appalling environmental damage this sinking has caused’, they added.

But politicians don’t seem averse to evading responsibility either. It is possible that if the tanker had been brought to shore when it first ran into trouble a spill could have been avoided. Instead, politicians refused to have anything to do with it, hoping that if it was towed out to sea it would become someone else’s problem (5).

In contrast to the advances in tanker design, technology for cleaning up oil spills has remained fairly static. The oil can be contained by ‘booms’, barriers made of chains of floating logs that stop the oil reaching shore, or chemicals called dispersants, which break the oil up so that it doesn’t form a slick. But once it reaches land, the clean-up operation is long and sticky.

However, a new technology is on the horizon. Oil is finally removed from the environment when it is digested by naturally occurring bacteria. At present, the best way of helping that process along is by ensuring that there are sufficient nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, in the affected region. Spraying specialist bacteria on to oil spills has been tried, but with limited results. But the possibilities of genetically modified bacteria could make for more successful clean-up operations.

What will the greens have to say about that?

(1) See Endangered Seas Programme, WWF, November 2002

(2) Oil spills: what is the long-term damage?, BBC News, 19 November 2002

(3) ‘How the doom-mongers always get it wrong’, Daily Mail, 19 November 2002

(4) Annual Report and Review 2001, Tanker Facts 2002

(5) Friends of the Earth Press Release: Spanish oil spill – the UK and Gibraltar Connection, 20 November 2002

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Topics Politics

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