Last weekend, a Greek-flagged oil tanker leaked oil into the Black Sea off the coast of Russia. Initially, officials reported that the spill was much smaller than it actually is, either erroneously or deceitfully claiming that the spill was quickly contained and that it posed no threat at all to either humans or wildlife. In reality, the spill has spread to an area approaching 80 square kilometres in size and has stretched into the open sea.
The Minerva Symphony tanker had filled up with oil at the Yuzhno-Ozereyevka sea terminal on the southern coast of Russia, near the city of Novorossiysk, the largest port on the Black Sea. The owner of the Yuzhno-Ozereyevka terminal, the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which ships oil out of Kazakhstan, was the body which initially spread the misinformation that the spill area was limited to 200 square meters and consisted of just 12 cubic metres of oil.
Scientists at Russia's Academy of Sciences (RAN), using satellite imagery, contested these claims, showing that in reality the spill is around four times as big as the consortium claimed. "The oil slick stretched from the shore into the open sea over a distance of 19 kilometres on Aug. 8," the RAN report said. The World Wildlife Fund of Russia has estimated that the volume of oil spilled is actually around 100 metric tons. While the consortium claimed that there was no danger to humans or wildlife, oil pollution was visible at a dolphin aquarium 15 miles away in Bolshoy Utrish. Russia’s consumer safety agency, however, found that samples of water taken along the coast from the Black Sea remained within normal parameters.
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Viktoria Abramchenko responded by calling upon the state environmental overseers to assess the scale and impact of the spill and open a criminal probe into the environmental damages. Historically, however, Russia has had a less-than stellar track record for environmental policy development, regulation, and oversight. And then there is the issue of the tanker’s Greek ownership.
Shipping is one of the most important industries in the Greek economy, second only to tourism. While Greece represents just a tiny fraction of the world population (0.16 percent), a whopping 20.67 percent of global tonnage and over half of European Union-controlled tonnage is held by Greek shipowners. And while Greeks are experts in shipping, with a rich maritime tradition, they are seemingly also global leaders in oil spills.
A 2016 study found that, in terms of total volume of spilled oil, Greek ranks second in the world second only to Liberia. If the fact that a country with an economy as small as Liberia’s ranks first on this list is shocking, that’s because country affiliation, or “flagging” in the global shipping industry is both ridiculously complex and absurdly simple. Countries like Liberia offer a “flag of convenience” to shipowners who want to pay a nominal fee to use another country’s flag in exchange for cheaper labor and laxer regulations, even if they have never and will never visit the country whose flag they fly. This also means that these ships are not, so to speak, running a tight ship. With responsibility obfuscated, these ships are far less reliable for following international regulations.
Altogether, as of 2016, Liberian-flagged ships were responsible for nearly two million tonnes of spilled oil from 35 vessels, or 37% of all spilled oil in the world. Greece, a country which does not represent a large number of flags of convenience, but actual Greek shipping companies, comes in second with over 1 million tonnes spilled, or 20.5 percent of the global total from 19 ships. These two goliaths outstrip any other country’s spillage by a stunning margin. The third-largest oil-spiller, Spain, clocked in at a relatively paltry 377,000 tonnes, or 7.7 percent, from just three vessels.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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