Bob Tippee

Much can be said about the sinking on Nov. 19 of the Prestige tanker and consequent spill of fuel oil off northwestern Spain.

And much can't be said with any justification—at least not yet—but has been and will continue to be said anyway.

Environmental groups say spills such as this show that humanity should quit using oil. In fact, humanity won't quit using oil and shouldn't.

A reversion to more-primitive sources of energy would harm the environment more than oil does. And favored alternatives, such as solar and wind, can't satisfy modern demand for energy.

The spill off Galicia also is said to have been an environmental disaster. Maybe so. But the extent of lasting damage can't yet be known.

The spill created a horrible mess. It threatened an important fishery. Whether it permanently damaged fish populations or other life remains to be seen.

To some people, any mess of human origin is an environmental disaster. But rational analysis must accommodate distinctions between ugly scenes that turn out to be temporary—as many oil spills do—and those that do lasting harm.

Proclamations of disaster at the first sighting of spilled oil contribute nothing to the discussion.

What can be said is that spills like this shouldn't happen.

The Prestige encountered a storm at sea and sustained structural damage.

Why? Storms happen at sea. Why couldn't the Prestige take the strain?

The ready answer is the vessel's single-hull construction. Twin-hull tankers are displacing older models. Maybe the storm that broke the Prestige wouldn't have hurt one of the newer ships.

If so, single-hull tankers can't disappear fast enough.

Construction questions shouldn't obscure the accountability issue.

The Prestige flew the classic flag of convenience. Registered in the Bahamas, it belonged to a Liberian company, was managed out of the Athens office of another Liberian outfit, and had a Filipino crew.

Two questions leap to mind:

Whom does a Galician fisherman call about compensation for his threatened livelihood?

And how much longer must a world revolted by spills put up with these daisy chains of responsibility?

(Online Nov. 27, 2002; author's e-mail:

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