Avoiding a BP-Style Disaster on the Bosphorus

bosphorus strait bridge tanker ship photo

A tanker passing underneath one of the Bosphorus bridges. Photo by Jennifer Hattam

The sight of dozens of mammoth tankers anchored off the coast of Istanbul, or of lone ones passing underneath the two high Bosphorus bridges as they steam their way to or from the Black Sea, is undeniably impressive. But in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Turkish officials are increasingly expressing concerns that the heavy traffic could lead to a similarly devastating accident on the continent-splitting Bosphorus Strait, which carries 1.85 million barrels of oil a day through a city of 15 million people."Oil-tanker transportation through the straits is not sustainable anymore," Turkish Environment Minister Veysel Eroğlu said last week following a meeting between government officials and representatives of 20 energy companies, including Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, and BP.

Rules governing shipping on the Bosphorus are certainly in serious need of updating. According to Bloomberg, "Passage is governed by the Montreux Convention drawn up in 1936, long before the era of the tankers. It allows free transit to all commercial vessels of all nations."

One Oil Tanker Every 53 Minutes
Two years after the convention was signed, there were 4,500 ships passing annually through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, which connect the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and onward to the Mediterranean. Now there are around 50,000 - and an oil tanker every 53 minutes.

Not surprisingly, the Bosphorus Strait is no stranger to shipping accidents. According to Eroğlu, 115,000 tons of oil has been spilled into its waters over the past 15 years. In January, a Moldovan cargo ship ran aground near the popular beach resort of Kilyos, spilling 96 tons of fuel oil and 25 tons of diesel oil into the area's bays and out to sea.

A Turkish Coast Guard report released just before that spill had determined that Turkey is among the top 10 countries for shipping accidents, with 500 on the Bosphorus alone in the past 50 years.

marmara sea istanbul tanker ships photo

Ships wait in the Marmara Sea for their turn to transit the Bosphorus. Photo by Anders B. via Flickr

Some measures reportedly discussed at the meeting with energy firms seem an obvious improvement, such as restricting the number, age, or load size of tankers or requiring more insurance to be bought by the companies that transport 145 million tons of hazardous substances -- about two-thirds of it oil -- through the straits each year. Indeed, steps already taken to improve safety -- including implementing a radar system and forcing tankers to take turns traveling through the straits in a single direction to eliminate the possibility of a head-on collision -- have reduced accidents.

But the idea the Turkish government is pushing of making an eventual transition to transporting oil and gas through land-based bypass pipeline routes has plenty of problems of its own.

Pipelines Have Their Own Problems
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean eliminates 350 tanker loads per year through the straits, and officials expect the $2.5-billion Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline to relieve the route of 50 million tons of oil annually. Companies are expected to initially balk at this idea because pipeline transportation is generally more expensive than shipping, but eventually make the shift. Pipelines around the world -- including the Baku-to-Ceyhan one -- have, however, been heavily criticized for displacing local residents and damaging the environment.

A proposed 285-kilometer pipeline from Bulgaria's Black Sea port of Burgas to Greece's Aegean port of Alexandropolis that has also been held up as an alternative to Bosphorus shipping is pending an environmental assessment. Bulgarian officials have said that the planned route violates the EU's Natura 2000 directive for conservative of wildlife because it passes through protected areas.

Crucially, the shift to pipelines would mean more money for Turkey, which doesn't earn revenue from shipping on the strait due to the international treaty, something that has prompted some cynicism about officials' motives for tightening shipping regulations.

"So, let me get this straight. Turkey wants to reduce the volume of traffic using the Bosphorus.....where it earns no revenue, and increase the use of pipelines.....where it does earn revenue, but its only concern is environmental?" one reader wrote in response to a Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review story about the subject. "Is this the same concern shown at the admitted number of trees to be felled for the third bridge....2.5 million of them? The same concern shown for the revoltingly polluting buses and dolmuses that belch their fumes into the Istanbul air?"

More about oil spills:
Gulf Oil Spill: The Black and Oily Demise of Wildlife (Slideshow)
One Day After 462,000-Gallon Spill in Texas, Only 10% of Oil Cleaned Up
One More Reason Oil Spills Are Bad: Surface Cleanup can Make it Worse for Fish Below
Hundreds of Birds Killed in Oil Spill on Russia's Sakhalin Island
Hurricane Ike, Missing Drill Rig, And Oil Spills: It's the System That Leaks
California Combats Oil Spills: New Bills Make Their Way Onto the Governator's Desk
Touring an Oil Spill Twice the Size of Exxon Valdez -- in Brooklyn

Avoiding a BP-Style Disaster on the Bosphorus
The sight of dozens of mammoth tankers anchored off the coast of Istanbul, or of lone ones passing underneath the two high Bosphorus bridges as they steam their way to

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