Time for trans-national environmental cooperation

The Baltic Times, TALLINN
Interview by Kairi Kurm
May 03, 2006

Estonia is still recuperating from its worst environmental disaster in history – two oil spills that tainted the Baltic state’s coastline and killed more than 10,000 birds. The government was impugned for its slow response to the disasters, and now the Interior Ministry is developing a six-year financial plan for future incidents. But the source of the problem – the growing traffic in the Baltic Sea – will remain. According to the Finnish government, the amount of oil being shipped through the Gulf of Finland has tripled in less than 10 years. The Baltic Times turned to transit company Estonian Oil Service (EOS) board chairman Arnout Lugtmeijer to discuss the recent spills and some possible methods to avoid future disasters.

What do you think of the government’s reaction to the oil spills that occurred this year?
It is not that easy to make a “quick” comment on this issue. This subject is very electorate-sensitive for politicians, and therefore quick and simple solutions are sought, and quick and simple accusations are made to identify those people to blame and those who should pay. It should be noted that the origin of the two spills were very different, with only the type of pollution [fuel oil] being similar. The first incident [in January] probably involved an oil carrier, whereas the second spill [in mid-March] involved a bulk cargo ship traveling in a caravan. An icebreaking vessel was leading the convoy of ships, and as the line slowed down the unlucky [Runner-4] vessel slowed at a different pace and therefore collided with the ship in front of it. The ship eventually sank, leaking a large amount of its marine fuel into the sea.
In my opinion, the government’s task is to provide uniform rules and regulations to reduce the probability of a marine accident occurring. It is also responsible for diminishing the consequences of such accidents if they happen.

What do you mean by the uniform rules and regulations?
I believe that a country can only achieve a certain degree of control if a uniform and common policy is created for all countries on the Baltic Sea. If one country unilaterally decides to implement a certain taxation policy or regulatory measures that make [its waters] less economically attractive to pass through, it will only result in transit through other ports with the same degree of – or lack of – control. But the cargo will still be passing its coastline.
As for taxation, it is only fair when the “risk contributor” is presented with the bill – i.e., the shipping companies.
In Estonia, Tallinna Sadam [Tallinn Port] has recently increased fees levied to ship-owners in return for the utilization of port infrastructure for oil tankers. Since the levies for tankers are proportionally more than for other cargo ships, this justifies the additional expenses incurred for equipping the port with new tools to limit the consequences of an oil spill.
This system should also apply to the technical and operational requirements of any ship passing through the Baltic Sea. But the port must provide a way of policing these rules, so as to ensure compliance.

What is the best solution for diminishing the consequences if a future oil spill should occur?
It would be advisable for the Baltic Sea countries to jointly, as with NATO, establish a “rapid reaction force” that is adequately equipped to deal with potential pollution calamities. In my opinion, it would be inefficient to equip each country individually with the means to deal with oil pollution. Aside from the efficient use of clean-up equipment, a special task force could be established with highly trained experts in pollution control.

Is it accurate to assume that we would not have had these accidents if the Baltic Sea’s traffic weren’t so heavy?
One should recognize that the economic activity among the Baltic Sea countries and around the Finnish Gulf has dramatically increased after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the arrival of thriving new economies. This has resulted in increased trading and transportation requirements for all types of cargo. Additionally, the significantly higher output of crude oil and oil products from Russia in the past three to four years has provided for increased liquid cargo volumes.
So it is fair to say that traffic has significantly increased in the Baltic Sea. Unfortunately, this also means that the probability of accidents or calamities occurring has also risen. If no additional regulatory rules are established, it will become increasingly difficult for Baltic Sea countries to contain pollution. This is especially true if they go without the proper equipment, adequate training and international coordination.

How do you feel about Environment Minister Villu Reiljan’s plan to tax transit companies with 2 kroons per ton?
Consequently, the establishment of the Oil Fund does not meet the abovementioned objective of establishing uniform rules and regulations. Therefore, the plan will not trigger a reduction in the probability of accidents. If the transit tax were to be established at 2 kroon per ton, and if the quantity of oil passing through Estonia remained steady and the annual funds we receive – which are approximately 60 million kroons per year – would be used to purchase equipment, then maybe the objective of diminishing consequences would be within our reach.
However, as history has shown with ice-breaking fees, which are collected by the government year-in and year-out in a greater extent than required, when extreme winter conditions prevail and an additional ice-breaking capacity is required, the funds are still spent elsewhere.
Source: http://www.baltictimes.com/news/articles/15277/

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