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On November 11 of this year, a fierce storm
On November 11 of this year, a fierce storm sank five vessels in the Kerch Strait, leaking about two thousand tons of fuel oil into the water. This disaster has raised many questions.

The first victim - the Volgoneft-139 river tanker - belonged to the Volgotanker shipping company. Who sent this Soviet-built river tanker filled with fuel to the open sea during a heavy storm, which it obviously could not withstand? Who is to blame for the wreck - the traffic controllers, the owner of the ship or the charter party? How accidental was this disaster, which has had such a negative effect on the recreational image of the northern Black Sea coast? The investigators are studying the tragedy but some conclusions suggest themselves.

Every year, up to 50 million tons of oil is spilled into the world oceans because of accidents. Being the world's second largest oil producer, Russia is seeking its niche in the international oil shipment market. We are mostly exporting our oil products via Black Sea ports. Every year, tankers carry about 60 million tons of oil from Novorossiysk; about 30 million tons from Tuapse; and three million tons from the port of Kavkas (close to the site of the disaster). All in all, tankers with more than 138 million tons of oil and oil products pass through the Black Sea ports of Russia and Georgia.

The Black Sea became the main route for the Russian oil exports in 2003, when the Caspian pipeline consortium commissioned its oil pipeline with a capacity of 68 million tons per year and a terminal in Yuzhnaya Ozereyevka between Novorossiysk and Anapa. The threat of environmental disaster in this region has been hanging in the air.

The Portnews agency reports that 23% of Russian oil, 74% of Kazakh oil and 65% of Azerbaijani oil is exported via the Black Sea. Soaring oil prices will be pushing these exports up.

However, there are factors curbing growing oil exports in the region. Oil tankers are delayed for a long time (up to 20 days) in the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits because of Turkey's tougher environmental regulations. Turkey has long questioned the validity of the 1936 Montreux Convention, which provides unrestricted and duty-free passage for commercial traffic through both straits at all times except for countries at war with it.

There is one more serious reason for concern about oil exports through the Black Sea. Anna Panovka, an expert of the Petromarket study group, believes that the situation with oil transshipment in Russian ports is very tense - they are all working at the limit of their capacities (as distinct from semi-idle Georgian ports Supsa and Batumi and Ukrainian Odessa).

River tankers carry oil via the Volga-Don channel and it is then transshipped to sea-going vessels in the port of Kavkaz, which is of major trade and strategic importance. The disaster was not accidental - the port had no right to accept river tankers for oil transshipment but this did not stop oil exporters that had chartered the river vessels.

There is no guarantee that accidents will not cause more oil spills in the Black Sea. Oil exports will continue going up. On May 12, 2005 Minister of Transport Igor Levitin endorsed the national transportation strategy, which provides for further development of oil export capacities on the Black Sea coast to increase oil transshipment in the port of Novorossiysk and the construction of a new port in Cape Zhelezny Rog by 2010.

The document provides for the construction of the Baltmax and Bosphormax large-tonnage tankers to increase oil shipments via Black Sea and Baltic straits. The Black Sea is likely to change from a vacation spot into an oil transshipment site.

After the disaster with the oil tanker Prestige in 2002, the European Commission banned the use of obsolete single-hull tankers off European shores. The black list includes about 300 tankers, which, according to Lloyd Register, were built in Japan (including the tanker Prestige). Many tankers of this class carry Russian oil because oligarchs prefer to charter the cheapest vessels, which are traveling the waters under the convenient Liberian flag. There is every reason to expect that the majority of these obsolete and most dangerous tankers, which amount to 60% of the world's tanker fleet will come to Russian waters (if they are not there yet). Under the circumstances, Russia is not likely to acquire a modern, safe and competitive fleet.

Russia's ambitious plans to increase its oil exports several times over - from the current 350 million tons to 550 million tons - are bound to cause environmental concern. Oil film already covers 13% of the world oceans. One drop of oil on the water surface creates a spot with an area of 0.25 square meters; the relevant figure for one ton of spilled oil is about five square kilometers.

It is very difficult to clean spilled oil from the sea surface. Researchers have not yet found a radical cleaning method. In the meantime, the oil film prevents sun rays from penetrating into the sea and slows down oxygen formation in it. This prevents the reproduction of phytoplankton that absorbs greenhouse gas emissions. Because of this, oil spills in the world's oceans are becoming a major factor in global climate change.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.


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