Commentary: The price of safer ships

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The Independent Online
Making the polluter pay is fine, but for polluter read also consumer. Western nations currently get their oil shipped on the cheap. Barely 1 per cent of the price of a gallon of petrol is accounted for by the freight costs of moving the oil from which it is refined from the Middle East to Europe.

If Western nations are serious about improving standards and lessening the risk of oil spills like the Braer, then their consumers are going to have to pay more. A new double-hulled tanker would set a potential investor back about dollars 110m. Such a ship would need to be chartered out at dollars 60,000 a day to provide an adequate return. Yet a tanker owner would be lucky to get half that sum.

There are simply too many old ships around, already bought and paid for, for whose owners any return is better than none. This has led to vicious competition on rates as well as the cutting of corners on other costs equally important from a safety point of view, such as crews.

A consolation is that the low percentage of total costs going in freight charges means an extra penny or two a litre would do the trick. Consumers would probably be prepared to bear such costs. The problem is how that is to be achieved, given the fragmented nature of the industry - two-thirds of the world's 3,250 oil tankers are owned by small, independent investors, and they operate out of umpteen ports.

The US answer has been unilateral legislation; tough new standards for boats and crews and (uninsurable) unlimited liability for tanker owners in the event of a spill. The latter may well backfire, however. By making the risks for any reputable investor so high, the good operators may be driven out. Prevention is ultimately better than compensation, and is more likely to be achieved through effective regulation and international co- operation.