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Analysis: Tankers threaten Turkish Straits

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by John C.K. Daly
Istanbul, Turkey (UPI) Mar 20, 2009
Istanbul, currently hosting the fifth World Water Forum, has one of the most spectacular settings in the world, bisected by the 19-mile-long Bosporus, which empties into the Sea of Marmara, which in turn debouches into the 38-mile-long Dardanelles. Merchantmen can traverse the 200-mile passage under good conditions in about 16 hours.

The Turkish Straits, the sole maritime route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, have been fought over since antiquity -- fabled Troy stood on the eastern shore of the Dardanelles in 480 B.C. Persian King Xerxes ferried his troops across the Bosporus on his way to the battle of Thermopylae, while 146 years later the armies of Alexander the Great would cross in the opposite direction on their way to punish Persia for its invasion of Greece a century and a half earlier.

Since the 1991 collapse of communism a darker threat has floated on the Turkish Straits -- a seemingly unending convoy of tankers laden with Russian, Kazakh and Azeri oil, a procession that Turkey is powerless to regulate under the 1936 Montreux Convention. The tanker traffic is a consequence of the development of the Caspian basin as an energy center over the last two decades. Turkish officials fear with good reason that the density of shipping is a tragedy waiting to happen in the heart of a city of 12 million people.

The proof is before anyone taking a boat ride across the Bosporus. While attending the forum, this reporter has been staying on Istanbul's Asian shore, making notes each day of the shipping.

This morning, during a foggy and rainy 20-minute ferry ride from Bostanci to Kadikoy, I counted four tankers progressing northward up the Bosporus, the same number as the previous two days, passing on an average of every 15 minutes, sometimes separated by as little as two or three tanker lengths. Arriving at Kadikoy, in the space of five minutes I counted seven passenger ferries darting across between Asia and Europe, along with those entering the Golden Horn and traveling up and down the Bosporus. Among the three cruise ships was the 22,400-ton Deutschland, moored on the European shore, while 23 individual fishing skiffs rocked in the waves. Finally, just to add to the navigational nightmare were the two building platforms working on the underwater Marmaray rail link, which finally will make possible the century-old dream of a Berlin-to-Baghdad railway.

No wonder the ferry taking me to Sutluce carried instructions in both Turkish and English about the "CORRECT WAY TO JUMP INTO THE SEA WATER WITH YOUR LIFEJACKET." Under terms of the Montreux Convention, Turkey cannot collect tolls, nor even require foreign vessels to use pilots.

The statistics compiled by the Turkish Maritime Pilots' Association, or TUMPA, based in Istanbul, give sobering weight to the impressions above. In 1996, 4,248 tankers passed the Bosporus. According to data compiled by TUMPA, in 2008, 54,396 vessels sailed through the Bosporus; of these, 9,303 were tankers, loaded with 140 million tons of Russian, Kazakh and Azeri oil. During the same year, 48,978 vessels transited the Dardanelles, of which 7,981 were tankers.

Even more worrying has been the rise in the number of liquefied petroleum gas and liquefied natural gas tankers passing the Turkish Straits; while the vessels are engineered to a high safety standard and the industry touts their perfect safety record, the fact remains that a large LNG tanker's cargo carries the kinetic equivalent of a small nuclear blast. Furthermore, such vessels are still subjected to the Turkish Straits' strong currents and remain vulnerable to terrorism, as evidenced by the fact that Somali pirates in 2006 seized the LPG tanker Feisty Gas, releasing it later for ransom, and in January captured the LPG tanker Longchamp, which they still hold.

At least tanker owners have slowly realized the value of using local pilots to guide their ships through the Bosporus. According to Capt. Cahit Istikbal, chairman of TUMPA and vice chairman of the International Maritime Pilots' Association, 95 percent of tankers passing through the strait now request pilots. Summing up the importance of his colleagues' services, Istikbal said: "Pilotage has vital importance for Istanbul, for approximately 155 vessels pass through the Istanbul Strait (the Bosporus) every day. Twenty-eight of these vessels are tankers, and six are vessels with an overall length of over 200 meters. These vessels carry hundreds of thousands of hazardous materials such as crude oil, LPG, jet fuel, etc., through a canal. The Bosporus is not merely a narrow canal; it is one of the most challenging waterways, with hairpin bends and a current flowing at a speed of six to seven miles per hour. Furthermore, crowded settlements begin right on the coasts on both sides. In case of a wrong maneuver or technical failure on board, potential risks may cause a disaster at any time. An explosion and fire is quite likely, and oil may spill along the Bosporus, which may lead to disastrous damages."

Istikbal and his colleagues have reason to be concerned: In the Bosporus' worst accident, on March 14, 1994, the 66,822-ton Cypriot tanker Nassia, laden with Novorossiysk oil, collided with the Cypriot Shipbroker at the Black Sea entrance to the Bosporus. In the conflagration that followed, 29 of the Nassia's crew died, the vessel's port and center tanks containing 19 million gallons of crude ruptured and polluted the Bosporus and both ships were total losses. The channel was closed to shipping for a week, and the accident caused $1 billion in damages. Tankers more than four times as large as the Nassia now regularly ply the Turkish Straits. According to TUMPA, 95 percent of shipping accidents that occur in the Turkish Straits occur on ships that have not used pilots.

Furthermore, even the best equipped and professional ships can make errors in judgment, as evidenced by the collision on March 20 between the U.S. Navy's USS Hartford submarine and the amphibious ship USS New Orleans in the Strait of Hormuz between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. The Strait of Hormuz is 29 miles wide, while the Bosporus at one point narrows to less than a half-mile. Following the collision, benchmark crude for April delivery rose 39 cents to $52 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Energy companies are playing tanker roulette in the heart of one of the largest cities in Europe.

Is there anything that can be done? In a word, yes -- pipelines. The $3.6 billion, 1,092-mile, million-barrel-per day Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline demonstrably lessened the tanker traffic through the Bosporus after it opened in May 2006. In 2007 the number of tankers passing through the Bosporus decreased for the first time, with 100 fewer tankers transiting the channel.

The double benefit to Turkey of both increased safety in the straits and additional transit revenues has prompted Ankara to promote additional pipelines to bypass the Turkish Straits, most notably the 340-mile, $1.5 billion Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline, also known as the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, or SCP, first proposed in 2004. In 2007 Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said, "With pipelines that can be built on land, we want to save the Straits from being an oil-carrying canal. ... The Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline should be built."

Anyone who has seen the beauty of Istanbul can only agree. Time and statistics are working against the Herculean efforts of Istikbal and his colleagues. While energy companies are concerned solely with the bottom line, the issue in this case is profits vs. preserving a unique repository of civilization. It's an easy call in this case -- more pipelines.

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