The tanker industry's response to an incident in the late 1960s led the sector away from developing critical safety and environmental protections. Craig Jallal presents an alternative view of the tanker industry today, had reaction to the Torrey Canyon grounding been different
In 1967, the LR2 Suexmax tanker Torrey Canyon ran aground off the Isles of Scilly in the UK, spilling some 120,000 tonnes of its crude oil cargo into the sea.
The most significant industry response to Torrey Canyon's disastrous grounding was the creation of an oil spill fund – International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds (IOPC Funds). On the face of it, this action from the industry seems like a proactive step towards greater responsiblity, however the rationale behind it was more likely a business calculation to limit the liability of tanker and cargo owners when groundings and cargo spillages occur.
The complex and international nature of the vessel's financing, ownership and management is emblematic of the industry as it existed at the time and, by and large, continues to exist to this day. Torrey Canyon was built in the US, jumbo-ised in Japan, crewed by Italians, owned by a Bermuda company backed by unnamed individuals, and on charter to British Petroleum. Big expenses and bigger potential profits draws powerful interests, all intent on avoiding incurring losses.
So, rather than making a move to address critical safety issues or the potentially devastating environmental and economic damages that are often linked with these kind of accidents, arguably, the aim of creating the ITOPF fund was to deflect responsibility in the event of an oil spill, with the justification being – and remaining so to this day – that no one would invest in tankers if corporate and personal liabilities were unlimited.
But what happens if we apply an Ian MacEwan-esque revisionist history to the Torrey Canyon incident?* What if the oil majors and other vested interests had taken an alternative route, and a more progressive stance?
In our revised past, the lesson tanker owners learn from the Torrey Canyon accident is to take proactive steps towards safety and to appropriately value the environment in which they are sailing and the economic livelihoods is supports.
Doing so, they decide to club together to initiate research into the safest tanker they could possibly design and manufacture. What results is a standarised version of a tanker that meets stringent requirements for safety as well as a policy agreement that crude oil shipped by the oil majors can only be carried on these standard safety tankers.
Far fetched? Maybe, but compare the series designs of VLCCs today against what we know would be the safest tanker designs and practices currently available – by which I mean minimum specifications of a double hull, twin engines, twin rudders and regular accompaniment by escort tugs – and see how often they fall short. Then imagine how much more progressive the tanker industry would be today if such a standard had been set fifty years ago.**
*For those who are unfamiliar, Ian MacEwan is a thought-provoking novelist and one of the UK’s greatest living writers whose latest novel, Machines Like Me, is set in the 1980s and revises recent history as we know it. I would highly recommend it.
**While we are revising history, let’s go ahead and have England beat Germany in the semi-finals of the 1970 football World Cup and win back-to-back World Cup finals.