Leading Article: The rules of the waves

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The Independent Online
A COLLISION between two oil tankers yesterday off the northern tip of Sumatra, causing a furious blaze as oil leaked from a Danish-owned supertanker, promised to leave another large stain on the shipping industry. It coincided with the publication of a report from Shell triggered by earlier disasters, including the break-up of the Braer off Shetland. The company's broad conclusion is that the tanker industry is not so much in need of tighter regulation as of more rigorous implementation of the welter of existing regulations, conventions and codes of practice. Also yesterday, members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg were debating the same issue and adopting a three-point resolution on measures to reduce the danger of further accidents in EC waters.

None of their suggestions looked very sensible when judged against Shell's analysis. The first called for tankers more than 15 years old to be banned from EC ports. But the Shell report points out that the reliability of a tanker hull and its equipment are less a function of age than of the quality of maintenance: a well-maintained 20-year-old tanker (the average life span) is safer than an ill- maintained five-year-old one.

The MEPs' second suggestion is that a date should be set for banning ships without double hulls from EC waters. Yet experts, including Shell's, point out that although double hulls tend to minimise pollution in 'low- energy' accidents, they can increase it in 'high-energy' ones involving heavy impact. Moreover, explosive gases can build up in the space between the hulls.

Finally, the MEPs wanted obligatory pilot guidance to be introduced for vessels using EC coastal routes. Yet pilots are scarce, and picking them up or dropping them in rough seas can be very dangerous. It also involves ships pulling in closer to shore, thus potentially creating dangerous bunching. Two British MEPs suggested that large sums should be charged for pilotage through environmentally sensitive waters; and that exclusion zones should be declared around EC shores. That would simply produce a tit-for-tat response around the world.

No doubt the European Commission, which is preparing a plan to boost maritime safety, will be more rational. One factor it will have to consider is the desperately fragmented nature of the oil tanker industry: it involves around 3,250 ocean-going tankers, yet the average shipowner's fleet is of just 1.7 vessels. Such a multiplicity of not uniformly scrupulous operators leads to large-scale evasion of existing safety regulations. Desperate to reduce their costs in a cut-throat industry, shipowners (who bear the responsibility) tend to move their fleets to the least stringent supervisory regime. Inspections by Shell suggest that 20 per cent of the world's tankers are substandard. It seems clear that governments and the International Maritime Organisation should concentrate on raising the level of enforcement of existing regulations, rather than on devising new ones.