News | Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Waiting to explode

Twenty tankers moored a few miles off the coast does not sound like a very good idea, in a country which relies so much on the marine environment for its toruism industry. Harry Vassallo on an ecological disaster waiting to happen

Just over the horizon a fleet of well over 20 tankers (oil, gas and chemical) as well as assorted cargo vessels currently lie at anchor on Hurd Bank, 22 km east of Valletta.
The place is well known to many of the ship owners as a convenient anchorage in shallow water. At this time of year, they face only a minimal risk from bad weather.
Lying just outside Maltese territorial waters, the anchorage offers the convenience of ease of supply from Malta without the expense of harbour dues payable were they enter port. The place has been used in this way before: as a fixed station by the Soviet Fleet and more recently by vessels requiring repairs afloat. What is the VAT rate on ship repair?
What is unusual is the fact that many of these vessels are fully loaded and not busily heading to discharge at their destinations. In normal times no ship lies idle in port or at anchor if it can help it. The capital required to build these behemoths demands constant employment to earn the interest and the repayments due, quite apart from the costs incurred in running them and the profit hoped for from such a massive deployment of funds.
Only the global financial crisis could have caused such a unique phenomenon: global recession has caused the price of oil to nosedive and interest rates are at an all time low. Cargo owners are convinced that prices have to start going up in a few days and that they will cover the extended charter costs. Ship-owners have their costs covered and they can offer better deals in view of the low interest rates. Lying at anchor fully loaded on Hurd Bank is a far better deal than lying in port awaiting a charter that will be slow in coming.
A quick survey of Mediterranean ports in any one of several websites offering the service shows that few if any display a similar agglomeration of vessels. Piraeus seems pretty busy but the few tankers at anchor there may be in ballast in their home ports or awaiting discharge. Genoa seems to have its normal traffic while Marseilles and Gibraltar seem busier but none seem to have an alien and fully loaded fleet anchored offshore.
Calculating the added risk these vessels pose to Malta is beyond my humble talents but common sense dictates that that they do add to the existing risks. I wonder whether their insurers have looked into it.
The many millions of barrels of oil and other hazardous substances that traverse the Mediterranean just beyond our horizons in the normal course of business quite probably fit into standard insurance formulae taking into account all the usual variables: age and condition of the vessel, length of journey and the known traffic hotspots on its course. Lying at anchor fully loaded for days and possibly weeks on end can hardly be catered for in any standard insurance format. Normally, it just does not happen.
The fleet factor is itself another significant risk element. A near collision with one of these monster vessels will not simply spark a heated exchange, the registering of protests, and a possible investigation all wrapped in a phew chorus. It could lead to a collision with another of the anchored vessels, and Armageddon for our tourism industry and water supply.
In the event of a mishap this fleet has no leader and no chain of command. Should any one of them become involved in an incident all the others will want to clear off as fast as possible. Who decides who goes first? Weighing anchor in the middle of a fleet of 20 to 30 large vessels in broad daylight may not be a breathtaking experience but being one of 30 vessels tugging at their mudhooks all at once in the middle of the night with no possibility of coordination sounds like pandemonium.
If the Sicily Channel sea traffic poses a constant high risk of pollution disaster for Malta at all times, having this unusual fleet sitting there holding in its bellies 20 million barrels of crude oil or a quarter of the world’s daily consumption, has to constitute a very high risk.
There appears to be very little any of us can do about it. The oil speculators awaiting the next oil hike are well within their rights to hold us dangling on the brink. An expression of concern from our government would be a good idea just to let them know that we’re watching. The matter could be raised at international level as a precedent to be avoided. Or we could make life as miserable as we can for these people to avoid having them do it ever again. One way is to make sure that their insurers are fully aware of the increased risks and squeezing them hard enough to make their pips squeak. That was my good deed for today.



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24 June 2009

Malta Today


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