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World: As Moscow Boosts Fuel Exports, Concerns Mount Over Tanker Safety

Last month's sinking of the "Prestige" oil tanker off the Spanish coast and this week's difficulties with another tanker in the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda are raising new concerns about the hazards of maritime oil and gas transport. Russia, which continues to boost its fossil fuel exports, is relying increasingly on tanker ships to get its oil to market. Should Europe be worried?

Prague, 13 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- After several successful test runs, Russian tankers are set to ply the icy waters of the Barents Sea on a regular basis this winter, ferrying oil from the Arctic port of Murmansk to the rest of Europe.

Moscow, with support from the American oil lobby, is promoting the new route as an alternative to dependence on Mideast oil and has ambitious plans for further expansion. Thomas Nilsen is a specialist on Russian issues for the Norwegian environmental group Bellona:

"When we look into the increase in the oil production in that area, we'll see that in the next five to 10 years, there will be as many as two super-tankers a week going around the Russian and Norwegian Arctic coast, heading South to the European market for oil."

The tankers currently being used by Russia's LUKoil on the Arctic route are top-of-the-line double-hulled ships. Even so, the thought of thousands of tons of crude navigating the storm-tossed, nighttime Arctic seas gives environmentalist and fishermen in neighboring Norway the jitters. And Nilsen says there is good reason.

"This is actually the first winter where they are exporting from the Russian Arctic with oil tankers," he said. "And of course, weather conditions can be very rough in the Arctic, but [our concerns are] also due to the fact that it is much more difficult to navigate in ice-covered water and in 24-hour darkness -- that is the big concern for us as environmentalists, when it comes to possible leakages of oil from tankers which could run ashore."

Simon Carroll is the representative for the environmental group Greenpeace at the International Maritime Organization -- the United Nations ship-safety agency. He explains why the transport of toxic substances such as oil or radioactive materials poses a major potential threat to Arctic waters: "The problem that I have is not only that they are very hazardous seas but that they're also very vulnerable seas. In the case of oil, oil being released into an Arctic environment lasts for a longer time. There are numerous very valuable fishery regions in the area around Murmansk, in the Barents Sea in particular. But they're not just talking about oil, they're also talking about movements of nuclear fuel. There seems to be a desire in the area outside of Murmansk to transport almost anything through that region. I think the questions that have to be asked are: Can we do it safely? Is the region vulnerable and should we be doing this at all? And these sorts of questions don't seem to have been asked, let alone answered."

Concerns are equally great further south, in the Baltic Sea, where tanker ships currently transport three times the amount of Russian oil they ferried just seven years ago. Last year, more than 500 large tankers -- most old and single-hulled -- plied these waters. So far, major accidents have been avoided, but there have been several close calls, the latest occurring this week when a Panamanian-registered tanker ran aground in the Klaipeda harbor.

Environmentalists note that the 26-year-old "Prestige," which broke in two and sank off the coast of Spain last month -- blackening hundreds of kilometers of pristine coastline -- had been carrying a 77,000-ton cargo of Russian oil picked up in St. Petersburg and the Latvian port of Ventspils. The Baltic Sea, says Carroll, presents its own set of navigation challenges: "The Baltic Sea offers some difficult channels of navigation. It is quite shallow and there are lots of islands. So how do you actually ensure that the ships that leave port -- be it in Russia or Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland -- actually are in good condition and that they are adequately crewed and that they're not creating an additional risk?"

Like many tankers, the "Prestige" was registered in the Bahamas. And under current laws, the Bahamas should have been responsible for guaranteeing the tanker's sea worthiness. But navigation experts say countries like the Bahamas, Liberia, Cambodia, and other coastal nations throughout the developing world often operate as "flags of convenience" -- lending their registration to ships in exchange for payment, no questions asked.

Finding out who the real owners are of the fleet of aging tankers plying the Baltic and other European seas often proves next to impossible -- a major obstacle in improving safety standards.

RFE/RL contacted Intertanko, the world's largest association of independent tanker owners, to give its representatives a chance to express their point of view on the issue of ship safety. But despite repeated phone calls to their offices in London and Oslo and initial indications they would agree to an interview, Intertanko ultimately did not speak to our correspondent.

Under current international agreements, single-hulled tankers are to be allowed to ply the world's seas until 2015. Following the "Prestige" sinking, the European Union now wants to move up that date and accelerate the creation of a European Maritime Safety Agency to better monitor ships and their movements. The EU has also issued a blacklist of 66 ships judged particularly dangerous that will be prohibited from entering its ports, effective immediately.

That will be cold comfort to the fishermen of Galicia, who face the prospect of three more years of black tides as oil continues to seep from the stricken "Prestige," out of reach, three kilometers down on the seabed.