Obvious lesson not learned in latest oil tanker spill

Feature story - 8 October, 2002
How the explosion on the Limburg oil tanker happened is still being debated, but the results are indisputable. The explosion that ripped through the double hulled oil tanker late Sunday produced a gapping hole that spilled as much as 8,000 tonnes of crude oil producing slicks that are visible from the coast of Yemen.

File photo: Greenpeace survey of oil pollution from a spill in Alaska.

The French company that owns the essel, and the French government, say it was a terrorist attack, the Yemen authorities say there was a fire first, which caused the explosion. No one knows for sure. The latest reports from journalists who have been taken to see the Limburg suggest that the explosion came from within the tanker.

But there is an obvious point that's getting lost in the debate. Tragedies like this one are an inevitable price paid for a world dependent on oil.

Despite the disastrous effects of oil spills, not to mention climate change, the global demand for oil continues to rise.

The explosion on the two-year-old tanker Limburg happened near Mina

al-Dabah, on the southern coast of Yemen. The super tanker was carrying almost 400,000 barrels of oil as it slowed down to bring on board a mooring pilot being delivered by boat. Then there was a fire, then an explosion. Or maybe there was an explosion, then a fire. Either way, some of the crew fought the ensuing blaze for nearly two hours. Most of them where rescued, but one Bulgarian is reported missing.

Although the fire was brought under control overnight, oil is still leaking from the ship. "Clean up" operations are reportedly underway, but based on past results, even if modern techniques are used, most of the oil (perhaps 80 percent) will not be recovered.

In truth, long term damage has already been done to the ecosystem. Because of the many variables involved, it's too early to know exactly how severe the impact of this spill will be. Although, if the oil slicks reach the beach a the damage will be even worse.

As the US Environmental Protection Agency puts it, "For example, marine life on reefs and shorelines is at risk of being smothered by oil that washes ashore or of being slowly poisoned by long-term exposure to oil trapped in shallow water or on beaches."

Whether the result of a terrorist attack, a drunken captain running a ship aground, or an accident in foul weather, the only certain route to stopping oil spills and a truly secure energy future is through clean, renewable energy.