Taming the rogue tankers
Conceived many decades ago and codified in international law in 1958, the rights of innocent passage through territorial waters and of freedom of navigation on the high seas are two of the sacred principles on which the Department of Transport (DoT) has based its defence of Britain's shipping interests. Yet its grounds for holding to them have been eroded as Britain's merchant tonnage has diminished to but a tenth of its immediate post-war size, and as the need to send British gunboats to pacify unruly natives has almost disappeared with the dissolution of a once far-flung Empire.
Both rights were also established in law at a time when the pollution potential of an oil tanker accident was diminutive by comparison with today's standards. As the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution pointed out in its major study on oil pollution in 1981, subsequent developments in marine transporation technology had increased the pollution risk so significantly that it was time for those rights to be "modified in relation to the threat of pollution by oil or other hazardous substances," in part by the Government seeking explicit powers to ban laden tankers from environmentally sensitive waters.
The Government paid no heed, either then or subsequently. In doing so it failed to take note of trends in the tanker industry which have increased the oil pollution risk in the years since the Royal Commission reported. The substantial surplus of tanker capacity which has prevailed since the mid-1970s has forced down freight rates, diminishing returns on investment to the point where few ship owners can pay for new tonnage, and encouraging lower standards of crewing, maintenance and operation. These powerful market forces can only be checked by effective regulation, but the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has proved itself incapable of achieving anything like consistent enforcement of its own laws, or of devising new laws to encourage the scrapping and replacement of sub-standard tankers.
The DoT's response, both before and after the trio of major tanker accidents around the turn of the year, has been to insist that little if anything should be done to reduce the threat to the UK's coasts except by agreement through the IMO because unilateral action could provoke retaliation against British vessels by other countries, interfering with their right of innocent passage and freedom of navigation. In the meantime, since the DoT apparently does not regard inspections of foreign vessels by its own surveyors as any sort of safeguard against tanker accidents, it is placing a great deal of weight on its dispersant spraying capability to deal with any tanker spills - a policy put in its proper perspective by the ineffectiveness of its spray planes following the tanker disaster off the Shetlands.
The DoT will have an opportunity to change its stance when the European Commission sets out proposals for action by the Community on maritime safety in the next few weeks. The Transport Secretary's recent displays of outrage about sub-standard tankers should not be allowed to disguise the fact that the DoT's policy of relying on the IMO to deliver the necessary improvements in tanker safety is now discredited.