EU proposals on single-hull tankers offend shipowners and environmentalists

The European Council endorsed a host of proposals by its transport and environment ministers aimed at preventing oil spills, but the measures have intensified criticism by both shipowners and environmentalists alike.

By an OGJ correspondent

NICOSIA, Dec. 16 -- The European Council endorsed a host of proposals by its transport and environment ministers aimed at preventing oil spills, but the measures have intensified criticism by shipowners and environmentalists alike.

After meeting last week in Copenhagen, heads of EU member states and the president of the European Commission expressed regrets and grave concerns over the Nov. 19 sinking off Spain of the Prestige tanker, carrying some 80,000 tonnes of fuel oil.

"The ensuing damage to the marine and socio-economic environment and the threat to the livelihood of thousands of persons are intolerable," said council members. They expressed solidarity with the countries, regions, and people affected by the spill, along with support and recognition of efforts to clean up the pollution.

The council said earlier findings of the Transport and Environment councils "should be implemented in all their aspects without delay."

Transport ministers asked the commission to propose a wider EU ban on all single-hulled oil tankers operating in European waters, to be agreed by July 2003 and implemented ahead of a similar international deadline of 2015.

The ministers invited member states to limit access of "vessels carrying dangerous and polluting goods within 200 miles of their coastline," as Spain and France have already done.

The Environment Council, consisting of the 15 EU environment ministers, welcomed proposals speeding the phase-out of single-hulled tankers and banning their use in transport of heavy oils.

Even as the European Council convened in Copenhagen to endorse those recommendations, the EU came in for sharp criticism of its shipping policies.

The Round Table of international shipping industry organizations issued a tersely worded letter to EU President Anders Fogh Rasmussen, criticizing the Union for allowing member states to undertake unilateral banning of ships.

"The international shipping industry is deeply concerned to learn of attempts by EU Member States to undermine the global maritime infrastructure enshrined by United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea," said the group, whose members include the world's largest shipping organization known as BIMCO, the International Chamber of Shipping, International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (Intertanko), and the International Association of Dry Cargo Shipowners (Intercargo).

"We deplore the unilateral action of certain States in declaring a 200 mile exclusion zone around their coastlines for tankers carrying heavy oil," the group said, referring to recent actions by Spain, France, and Portugal.

The Round Table letter coincided with a new law issued by Spain on Friday aimed at banning from Spanish ports single-hull tankers carrying heavy oils. The Spanish ban is to become effective Jan. 1 and would apply to all such vessels, regardless of age or flag.

Until then, operators of single hull vessels will be required to provide maritime authorities at least 24 hours advance notice of any call at a Spanish port. Failure to comply will carry a fine of up to 3 million euros ($3.1 million).

Spain's law also would "control and in certain cases restrict" access to the country's exclusive economic zone if a vessel is considered an environmental risk. That ban is already being applied, with six single-hull vessels, all over 15 years old, expelled in the past 2 weeks.

Intertanko was harsh in its criticism, saying the law is "ill-conceived" and that "several of the proposed measures potentially fly in the face of well-established international law and procedures." Spain's shipowners' association, Anave, said the measures were generally "reasonable and appropriate... though very ambitious in some aspects, which will make it very difficult to implement them at international level."

Even as shipowners criticized the EU for being too restrictive in its measures over single hull tankers, however, Greenpeace International said the proposed new legislation was too lax. Greenpeace representatives claimed EU heads of state must "radically improve" current legislation or "they will be directly responsible for the future disasters that are sure to come."

Meanwhile, Spanish officials said a submarine crew patched one of the holes in the sunken Prestige. That was done as an experiment to determine if additional patching might prevent oil from leaking from the vessel.

More in General Interest