Quick – name Europe’s third largest city, which has a maritime channel cutting through the heart of the metropolis, transiting a massive tanker every 15 minutes, around the clock?
For those with dicey geography, it’s Istanbul, which in the past two decades since the collapse of Communism has seen its population explode along with tanker traffic from the Black Sea, carrying Russian and Kazakh “black gold” for foreign markets.
The Bosporus and Dardanelles traits, collectively known as the Turkish Straits, have been under Turkish sovereignty since 1936, when the Montreaux Convention was agreed to by major powers to regulate shipping there. When the Convetion was signed, the population of Istanbul was little more than 700,000, and about four ships a day transited the Bosporus. Now Istanbul contains more than 13 million people, 18 percent of Turkey's population and is Europe’s third largest city, after London and Moscow.
And the shipping? The Turkish Straits are now transited by more than 50,000 vessels annually, including 5,500 oil tankers. Merchantmen can traverse the 200-mile passage under good conditions in about 16 hours.
Ankara has been largely powerless to interfere with this rising maritime traffic, bound as it is by the terms of the 1936 Montreux Convention, which, while ensuring Turkish sovereignty over the Turkish Straits, nevertheless provides for unhindered commercial shipping through the channel. According to the terms of the Montreux Convention, Turkey is prohibited from even collecting toll on merchantmen transiting the traits, and commercial vessels are not even required to engage the services of a pilot to navigate the tricky passage. Not unreasonably, Turkey is concerned that large oil tankers pose a serious navigational safety and environmental threats to the Bosporus Straits. The largest oil tankers able to pass through the Turkish Straits are the Suezmax-class tankers (120,000-200,000 dead weight tons).
A decade after the implosion of the USSR, in October 2002, Turkey placed new restrictions on oil tanker passage through the Bosporus, including a ban on nighttime transit for ships longer than 200 meters. The Turks have also blocked the channel passage during periods of inclement weather, in 2010 delays for oil tankers reportedly reached as much as 20 days, costing about $50,000 in demurrage charges per day.
So, are the Turks being paranoid?
No - Turkish fears are not groundless. The Turkish Straits are some of the most difficult and complex maritime channels in the world to navigate. The 19-mile-long Bosporus has a convoluted morphological structure that requires ships to change course at least twelve times, including four separate bends that require turns greater than 45 degrees. At Kandilli, a blind 45 degree bend complicates navigation where the channel narrows to less than half a mile. At both Kandilli and Yenikoy, forward and rear lines of sight are blocked during turns. Moreover, two bridges built in 1973 and 1988 spanning the channel increase the navigational threats and the lags of one of the two bridges are even grounded in the Bosporus, while construction of a third span is under consideration. Adding to the north-south international shipping congestion in the Bosporus, approximately 1.5 million people cross the Bosporus daily on intercity ferries and shuttle boats, accounting for about 1,000 east-west crossings of the channel each day.
In the Bosporus’s worst accident, on March 14, 1994, the 66,822-ton Cypriot tanker Nassia, laden with Novorossiysk oil, collided with the Cypriot Ship Broker at the Black Sea entrance to the Bosporus. In the conflagration that followed, 29 of the Nassia’s crew died, the vessel’s port and center tanks containing 19 million gallons of crude ruptured and polluted the Bosporus and both ships were total losses, costing their insurers nearly $13 million The channel was closed to shipping for a week and the accident caused $1 billion in damages. Tankers almost four times the size of the Nassia now regularly ply the Turkish Straits. Since 2006 141 accidents have occurred in the Bosporus.
Turkey has repeatedly urged Moscow to lessen the Straits tanker traffic by investing in pipelines skirting the waterway, but to little avail.
So, on 29 September Turkish authorities held a major drill in the Bosporus to simulate an oil spill at sea caused by the collision of a tanker ship and a passenger ferry. Rescue ships, tugboats, helicopters and professional divers participated, more than 500 personnel in all.
The Bosporus was closed to all sea traffic for five hours after the drill began at 9:30 a.m. Transport Minister Binali Y?ld?r?m, who was leading the “National Drill for Urgent Intervention in Sea Pollution” said, “In all accidents across the world, whether they are sea or plane accidents, on highways or on railways, the human factor (causes) 80 percent of them. You could deploy every sort of device, but nothing can replace a human being.”
Russia has been banking cash for two decades by using the Turkish Straits as a toll-free oil maritime superhighway, paying Turkey nothing in transit tolls and under the Montreaux Convention terms, not even needing to take a pilot aboard for transit.
But there is no pressure that Turkey can bring to bear on Russia under the terms of the Montreaux Convention, in which case the “National Drill for Urgent Intervention in Sea Pollution” was simply a prudent precaution. If worst comes to worst however and a major oil disaster occurs in the Straits, then Moscow’s final price tag could be far higher than joining a consortium pipeline.
Turkish friendship under such circumstances should not be taken for granted – just ask the Israelis.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com