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Tuesday, 23 January, 2001, 14:00 GMT
Spotlight on oil transport risks

By BBC News Online's Kate Milner

The oil spill off the Galapagos Islands has once again highlighted the environmental risks of the industry.

But in global terms, the spill was relatively small - less than 90 tonnes compared to 85,000 tonnes shed by the Braer when it ran aground in the Shetland Islands in the UK in 1993.

The reason so much world attention has turned to the Galapagos is because of its unique plants and animals. Many of the islands' species cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

While we continue to use oil as our major source of energy then we will have oil spills

Paul Horseman, Greenpeace
"The oil spill is not actually a very big one," said Dr Paul Kingston of the Centre for Marine Diversity and Biotechnology at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

"A hundred tonnes on a shore can do a hell of a lot of damage, there's no doubt about that, but it wouldn't have rung any alarm bells with the international bodies."

"I've been out to Galapagos several times," he said. "It's one of the places I cherish most in the world."

'Lax system'

The oil slick may not make the league table of oil spill disasters, but for Greenpeace scientist Paul Horseman it came as no great surprise.

Oil slick
The Galapagos spill was relatively small
"Oil spills happen with amazing regularity," he said. "The global picture is that while we continue to use oil as our major source of energy then we will have oil spills."

He wants to see a much tougher system of regulation to reduce the dangers, with unlimited liability on oil companies.

He believes the global oil industry gets away with a lax system, balancing risk gainst cost.

"The problem has a lot to do with ship standards - the quality of crews and the training of crews," he said.

Key tanker route times
Saudi to Texas, US - 41.8 days
Nigeria to Brazil - 11.3 days
Indonesia to Los Angeles, US - 26.3 days
UK to Holland - 2 days
Nigeria to Italy - 16.5 days
Saudi to Japan - 22 days
At present there is no single international body to deal with spills, though there have been calls by some environmentalists for the United Nations to intervene.

It is largely up to individual countries and private companies to sort out problems in their waters.

In the UK, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has a national contingency plan to deal with disaster. Local authorities have their own emergency plans and carry out drills.

Oil Spill Response Ltd (OSRL), based in Southampton in southern England, is the largest global response facility in the world. It has a stockpile of equipment capable of responding to two simultaneous spills of 30,000 tonnes each.

The company was set up by BP in 1980 as a direct result of an oil spill in 1978 off the Pembrokeshire coast in the UK and is now owned by more than 20 international oil companies.

Toxic dangers

The distinctive blue-footed booby is thought to be at risk
There are several factors that cause oil spills, said Mr Horseman.

"If you look at the statistics, most spills are from oil tankers that are old," he said. "But that doesn't mean you don't get spills from new tankers, for example the Exxon Valdez, in 1989."

But the main problem, he said, is simply the amount of oil that world industry uses, and the nature of oil itself.

There are many different types of oil, but in simple terms there is ordinary crude oil which is carried by large ships to oil refineries. And there is the refined oil - gasoline or diesel - carried by small tankers.

Crude oil has a suffocating, toxic effect and is like a heavy tar. Gasoline is generally more toxic but evaporates fairly quickly.

Financial help

"If you pour petrol on something it smell strong but it soon evaporates, but if you pour tar it stays around for a long time," said Mr Horseman.

Cost can also hamper a clean-up operation. Dr Kingston would like to see more financial help for poor countries to try to prevent fresh disasters.

"In Ecuador some ships I've seen have been pretty dilapidated," he said. "That reflects the poverty of the country.

"There is concern by the Euadorian Government for the environment, but the money's got to come from the outside. They simply can't afford the best navigation equipment."

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