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Russia's worn-out tankers raise fears

A trading company owned by Alfa Group chairman Mikhail Fridman is under fire for chartering outdated oil tankers, including the 26-year-old Prestige, which disastrously broke up off the Spanish coast on a voyage from St. Petersburg for the trader two weeks ago.

About 20 Greenpeace activists set out to sea in rubber dinghies Friday to try to prevent the departure of another aged tanker hired by the company, the Swiss-based Crown Resources, from the Estonian port of Muuga. They feared a repeat of the disaster because the vessel, the Byzantio, is the same age and has the same weak single-hulled design as the Prestige, which spewed an estimated 20,000 tons of fuel oil into Spanish waters when its hull cracked in a storm. But they failed to stop the Byzantio from embarking on its voyage to Rotterdam with 53,000 tons of fuel oil.
Calling for an immediate ban on single-hulled tankers, which do not have the added protection against stress as more modern double-hulled vessels do, Greenpeace activists slammed Crown Resources for booking the Byzantio despite the demise of the Prestige. "Crown Resources is acting totally irresponsibly," said Mikael Jovall, Greenpeace spokesman for the Baltic Sea area, in a telephone interview Friday. "We are very worried about increased exports of Russian oil through the Baltic Sea."

Fridman's Crown Resources is certainly not alone in chartering aging single-hulled oil tankers. There are thousands of such tankers plying international waters. But as Russia ramps up its oil exports, which are up 30 percent over the last three years to as much as 4 million barrels per day, chances are a lot of these worn-out vessels have been hired by Russian-owned trading companies.

Russian oil companies have been scrambling to find new routes to export booming oil production and avoid punitive tariffs and restrictions imposed by state pipeline monopoly Transneft for the Druzhba pipeline route into Europe. The majority of exports are shipped out by sea. Tanker traffic from Russia in the Baltic Sea is soaring. According to the Helsinki Commission, a Baltic Sea environmental watchdog, oil transport in the area is up 40 percent over the last three years. Driving that growth are new shipments out of Primorsk, which came on line at the end of 2001 as the terminus for the Baltic Pipeline System and has a capacity of up to 207 million barrels per year. And, as Russian oil companies forge ahead with plans to ship more oil to the United States by constructing a new terminal in Murmansk, cutting the distance to Western Europe and the United States considerably, environmentalists fear future disasters provoked by ice and tough weather conditions there.

More than half of the tankers that left Russian ports on the Baltic and Black seas so far this year were single hulled, according to Lloyd's Marine Intelligence Unit. Of those, more than 65 percent were more than 20 years old. "These are the really dangerous ones," said James Ryder, oil trade analyst at Lloyd's.

Questions are now being raised across Europe about the safety of tankers loaded with Russian oil. Key concerns are the cost-cutting tactics of Russian-owned trading companies in hiring older tankers and the widespread use of so-called flags of convenience to avoid taxes, which make it much harder to trace the real owners of such vessels and blur the responsibility for accidents should they occur. The Prestige was flying a Bahamian flag and the Byzantio is flying a Maltese flag. Both of these flags are on a safety blacklist by one of the world's leading port inspection authorities, the Paris Memorandum of Understanding. Officials and environmentalists are also questioning the ability of Russian ports to check the safety of the hundreds of tankers that leave every day.

"We're fed up with oil spills. Things must change. Russia needs to think about what could happen," said Gilles Gantelet, spokesman for transport and energy at the European Commission in Brussels. "The Prestige disaster may have happened far away off the coast of Galicia, but this could happen in the Baltic Sea.

"Through bilateral talks with Russia, we must try to see ways to clearly and definitely improve the way goods are transported by sea," he said. Russian trading companies may soon have to pay more to charter more modern vessels for oil shipments through European waters. EU transport ministers meet in Denmark this week to discuss a proposal to impose an immediate ban on single-hulled tankers. European Union Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio called on Sunday for an overhaul of maritime laws and immediate enforcement of the ban, Reuters reported. Current policies propose a gradual ban on these tankers by 2015.

To take further precautions against future disasters off the northern coast of Spain, a storm-prone area sometimes known as "the coast of death," the Spanish and French governments agreed last Tuesday to impose tough inspections on any single-hulled vessels aged over 15 years carrying fuel oil or tar.

It's still not clear how exactly the Prestige disaster happened. But Spanish officials, facing a cleanup bill of up to $2.5 billion, are already considering suing Fridman's Crown Resources for negligence. "This is a very complex situation," said Alzaver Sahatun, press officer for the Spanish EU mission. "But we will take all the legal measures that are within our rights."

(The Moscow Times 02.xii.02)

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