- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 26, 2009


Fisherman J.R. Janneck’s boat is 38 feet. The SeaRiver Long Beach, sister ship of the Exxon Valdez, which caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history, is 987 feet and carries 1.5 million barrels of oil.

There is another difference.

“My boat is double-hulled,” Mr. Janneck, 63, said as he worked on his silver salmon fishing boat in Valdez Harbor last month. Twenty years after the March 24, 1989, disaster, Mr. Janneck still remembers the “tiger-stripe sheen” of oil in the water and the absence of birds around him.

Even after 79 percent of the world’s supertanker fleet has been replaced by vessels with two hulls, Exxon Mobil Corp. remains the biggest Western user of the older designs. It hired more of the tankers last year than the rest of the 10 biggest oil companies combined, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.

Exxon, the world’s largest oil company, keeps using tankers with one hull even after 151 countries decided two are better than one for preventing oil spills and pledged to ban single-hull vessels by 2015. The European Union called the single-hull design “more accident-prone” in 2003, when it started a prohibition that takes full effect next year. London-based BP PLC says it won’t hire them because of the risk of leaking.

Hull design is only one of “hundreds of variables” Exxon uses in monitoring safety, and cost isn’t one of them, said Rob Young, a company spokesman. He declined to comment on the savings question because it would be an “incorrect characterization” to say its motivation in hiring the vessels was financial.

Exxon had no oil spills in 2008 and “less than one teaspoon per million barrels carried” in 2007, Mr. Young said.

Exxon’s U.S. refining rivals, including Sunoco Inc., Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips and Koch Industries Inc., didn’t hire one single-hull vessel last year, the data show. The data were provided by ship brokers, including Simpson, Spence & Young Ltd. in London, and shipping-information provider Lloyd’s Register-Fairplay in Redhill, England.

“We in the market don’t understand why Exxon continues to do this,” said Per Mansson, a ship broker at Nor Ocean Stockholm AB, who has been involved in the tanker industry for 30 years.

The Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, damaging at least 700 miles of coastline and killing more than 36,000 birds, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It took three years and $3.86 billion to clean up the spill and compensate fishermen and other business owners. The U.S. Supreme Court last year cut the punitive damages against Exxon to $507.5 million from $2.5 billion.

Had the supertanker been fitted with a double hull, the scale of any spill would have been reduced, said Apostolos Papanikolaou, a ship-design professor at the National Technical University of Athens.

Double-hull tankers have an outer layer of steel, normally about an inch thick and 6 1/2 feet from the inner one, that acts as a buffer in an accident. When tankers with one shell are ruptured, the only place for the oil to go is into the sea.

It costs about 20 percent less to hire a single-hull ship.

In the aftermath of the Valdez disaster, the U.S. government led a global push to outlaw single-hull vessels. Later accidents involving the Erika off France in 1999, which had been hired by Total, and the Prestige off the Spanish coast in 2002, leased by Crown Resources AG of Switzerland, increased the pressure.

The United States, under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, will allow single-hull tankers to sail in its waters either to unload at the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port or at dedicated unloading areas out at sea until 2015. The International Maritime Organization, the shipping division of the United Nations, will ban single-hull tankers starting next year. Member nations can avoid the prohibition for five more years by outlining their intentions in a letter to the IMO. An IMO spokesman could not say how many have sought such exemptions.

In deciding to restrict single hulls, Congress considered design studies provided to the IMO that found spills from double-hull tankers would be “zero in most accidents,” said Robert Gauvin, Washington-based technical adviser at the U.S. Coast Guard.

“I am very surprised they are still using these tankers because they are still suffering brand damage from the Exxon Valdez,” said Tracey Rembert, a senior corporate governance analyst at the Service Employees International Union in Washington, whose largest stockholding is 126,000 shares of Exxon. “There are people who still don’t buy gas at Exxon, and that was 20 years ago.”

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