New strategies to prevent oil spill accidents

The article was first published in Kymen Sanomat ”Viewpoint” on April 1, 2014
Authors: Päivi Haapasaari (in photo) and Annukka Lehikoinen, University of Helsinki
Maria Hänninen, Aalto University

In October 2012, in the eastern Gulf of Finland, an alert VTS centre operator prevented an accident involving the Greek tanker Lovina. A lengthy article in the Helsingin Sanomat monthly supplement of October 2013 described the event in detail.

The case reminded us all of the risks of oil transportation in the Gulf of Finland, one of the world’s busiest areas of marine traffic. As a result of the growth in Russia’s oil production and exports, oil transportation has nearly quadrupled since the beginning of the 2000s. In 2000, 44 million tonnes of oil were transported, while in 2010 volumes had grown to 158 tonnes. In the coming years, estimates have indicated that oil transportation volumes could grow all the way to 200 million tonnes. Many researchers believe a serious oil spill accident in the Gulf of Finland is only a matter of time, and it can be considered a miracle that one has not occurred already.

Finland has prepared for oil accidents by investing in oil-combating equipment which can be used to efficiently collect the oil that has leaked to the sea. The success of the oil-combating effort, however, depends

greatly on current weather conditions, and it is impossible to fully prevent damage to marine nature even in fair weather. This is why preventing the oil from entering the sea is at least as important as the preparations for collecting it.

Marine safety is based on rules that are to a large extent the same in all seas of the world, and reviewed whenever new accidents occur. In areas such as the Gulf of Finland which have busy traffic but are also environmentally sensitive, complying with global rules and learning as you go are, however, not enough, as safety management should be based on risk forecasts that take local conditions into account. A prerequisite for this is that risks are recognised and the impact of various risk-mitigating actions is assessed.

The MIMIC research project, which has just been completed, compared the cost-efficiency of three new risk management methods in the prevention of oil accidents in the Gulf of Finland. The methods included a more comprehensive obligation to use piloting; a new kind of navigation service for onshore-vessel communication (Enhanced Navigation Support Information, ENSI); and improved vessel impact resistance.

The costs of the measures were estimated in relation to their ability to diminish the expenses of oil spill combating effort if accidents were to take place at forecasted frequency.

According to current legislation, the obligation to use pilotage services is, with some exceptions, in force only at certain piloting areas and only for vessels whose size or harmful cargo make it a requirement. We reviewed a situation where pilot services would be mandatory for all vessels on the Gulf of Finland.

Via the ENSI service, a VTS centre receives the route plans of vessels entering the Gulf of Finland. In return, the vessels receive up-to-date information on, for example, weather, ice and traffic conditions on their planned route. The service has been tested with Finnish tankers.

Improving the impact resistance of tankers would decrease oil spills that occur because of accidents. Impact resistance has been researched a lot, and various methods, supported by classification institutions, have been developed to improve vessel structures. The methods have already been applied to some new vessels.

Results indicated that out of the methods studied, the ENSI service is the most cost-efficient way to reduce the risk of oil spill accidents. It would reduce the risk of accidents by 18-20%. In theory, this would lead to 10% annual savings in oil spill combating costs, assuming that accidents would take place as forecast. The savings would be greater than the costs of implementing and deploying the ENSI service.

Mandatory pilotage services and improving the impact resistance of vessels would, as risk-management methods, be even more efficient than the ENSI service. The former would decrease the risk of oil accidents in the Gulf of Finland by 33 to 35%, and the latter by 30 to 60%, depending on the level of structural reinforcements. The options are, however, rather expensive, and consequently did not fare well in a cost-efficiency competition.

The research investigated the risk to the environment only based on the frequency and volume of oil entering the sea, and on the basis of how much it would cost to collect it. For a more thorough analysis, a price tag should also be defined for the incurred environmental damages. The market value of fishing or tourism can be calculated, but it is more challenging to name a price for the free leisure use of the shores, or the existence of an endangered species.

When a major oil accident becomes reality, the value of environmental damage will in all likelihood surpass the costs of the abovementioned risk-management methods for years to come. In this sense, it would be justified to use several of these methods at the same time.

Open discussion on risks, acceptable risk levels, the value of the environment and the need, methods and costs of risk mitigation is a prerequisite for preventive risk management. Our project proposes the establishment of an international risk management forum for the Gulf of Finland, building its operations on the cooperation of authorities, shipping companies, seafaring professionals and citizens. The objective of the forum would be to issue recommendations that diminish risk, taking into account computational risk analyses.