Back in the 1970s, tanker owner Aristotle Onassis was the richest man in the world, and as infamous a personification of big capital as Bill Gates is today. Many other shipowners wanted a slice of his action, and the world is now living with the results, often in the form of beaches and seas covered with thick black sludge.
The Prestige--which broke up off the north west coast of Spain last month--was just one of many vessels mass produced in Japan during the spectacular over-ordering seen at the time. So was the Erika, which sank off the coast of Britanny in late 1999, losing 30,000 tonnes of oil in the process. So was the Braer, cause of a devastating 85,000 tonne spill off the Shetland Islands in 1993. So was the Aegean Sea, which grounded in almost the same Spanish waters as Prestige a decade ago, gushing out 74,000 tonnes of crude. The regularity of such occurrences points to something beyond bad luck.
These ships are all products of Japan's emerging shipbuilding industry of 30 years ago, geared to churning out technically unsophisticated vessels as quickly and cheaply as possible. Internationally agreed regulatory standards of the day were met, but only just. To keep costs down, steel thickness was often cut to the minimum permissible. Yet many of them still trade. Pre-1980 Japanese vessels make up around 300 of the 1,800-strong world oil tanker fleet.
Some tankers are even older. Although merchant ships are designed to last 20-25 years, a considerable minority of owners happily work vessels for as long as they find willing charterers. Tankers dating back to the 1950s are still out there.
Last year the International Maritime Organisation--a notoriously bureaucratic United Nations agency--was stung by the threat of unilateral action from the European Union into ordering the phase-out of single hull tankers of the Erika or Prestige type. Gradually they will be replaced with vessels based on the more recent double hull design, undoubtedly better able to resist impacts.
But owners pleaded that they built ships to the standards applicable at the time of construction, and that their early demise would penalise them unfairly. Moreover, an immediate ban would have crippled the oil industry's ability to move its product around the planet. Few governments dare risk upsetting the oil majors.
Under the resultant compromise, older single hulled tankers will go between 2003 and 2007; Prestige, for instance, could not have traded beyond 2005. Yet other single hull tankers that meet certain anti-pollution standards will still be afloat as late as 2015. The upshot is that few vessels will be scrapped before they would probably have gone to the breaker's yard anyway. In the meantime, single hull oil tankers continue to make up the majority--around 60 percent, in fact--of the world fleet. Nor will double hull ships eliminate future accidents. Maritime history--from the Titanic to the Derbyshire--is littered with examples of the finest vessels of their day succumbing to the elemental powers of the sea. Also, naval architects point to the theoretical danger of gas build up between the two skins, which could result in an explosion.
Meanwhile, substandard ships continue to hide behind the flag of convenience system. Often it is impossible to establish who controls a ship registered to a brass plate company in Panama or Liberia, deemed legally to be owned by whoever is carrying the so called 'bearer shares'. Where ownership cannot be established, law cannot effectively be enforced.
The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) deserves credit for its 50-year campaign against flags of convenience. Yet despite such efforts, almost all western shipowners now register in the Third World, benefiting from massive tax breaks and deregulated labour standards. In the process, they have sacked European and North American crews and replaced them with Filipinos, Indians, Eastern Europeans and Chinese nationals, willing to work for a fraction of their predecessors' salaries. Paradoxically, payment in hard currency makes even these pay packets worth a fortune in their home countries, with seafarers often reluctant to organise effectively for fear of losing lucrative employment. In some cases, their unions are little more than de facto employment agencies, completely in the shipowners' pockets.
Where ITF-affiliated dockers were once able to black unsafe ships, the employers' offensive of recent years--smashing the TGWU in ports such as Liverpool and Tilbury--has largely put a stop to this rudimentary form of workers' control. Although governments mount some safety inspections, few countries meet the target of checking one vessel in four calling in their ports. In Britain, resources for surveyors have been considerably cut back under New Labour. Capitalism and shipping safety evidently mix like, well...oil and water.