Istanbul Collision Foreshadows Worse to Come

| Mon Aug. 13, 2007 11:31 AM EDT

According to news reports (here and here), a Turkish passenger ferry has collided with a Ukrainian-flagged cargo ship in the Marmara Sea, off the coast of Istanbul. Passengers sustained minor injuries, and according to Turkish authorities, maritime traffic in the nearby Bosporus Straight was unaffected. End of story? Not quite.

I traveled to Istanbul in 2005, in part to investigate the growing weight of international maritime shipping through the Bosporus, which runs through the heart of the city and divides it between Europe and Asia. Whatever might be said of today's accident in the Marmara, we should expect worse.

The Bosporus, which connects the Marmara Sea in the south to the Black Sea in the north, is among the most difficult stretches of water in the world for ship captains to navigate. During any given passage, they must execute about a dozen significant changes of course to avoid slamming into Istanbul's heavily populated shores. Strong and unpredictable currents can push and pull ships off course. Sudden dense fog and blinding rains are common.

The tankers that face these hazards are some of the oldest and worst maintained currently afloat. Recent oil spills off the coasts of France and Spain have caused European countries to tighten their controls. Many of the older ships that cannot meet the new standards have been shunted off to poorer, less developed countries, like those that line the shores of the Black Sea. The average oil tanker based there is now over twenty years old, more than twice the average age of similar vessels working out of European and American ports.

As these tankers pass the Bosporus, they are forced to play dangerous games of chicken with countless numbers of smaller merchant ships, passenger ferries, commercial fishing boats, naval and coast guard vessels, and leisure craft that crowd the Bosporus on a typical day. To many of the people of Istanbul, the constant presence of crude-laden tankers just offshore is barely worth a second thought. To be sure, there are occasional protests, including an annual demonstration by local environmental groups that fills the strait with small boats and prevents tankers from passing for a few hours. But overall, the city seems fairly resigned to its fate, placing its trust in the hands of foreign captains working for foreign companies under foreign flags. To visitors, too, the ships are less objects of concern than part of Istanbul's exotic charm, a constant reminder of the city's unique place in the world.

But tankers are not decorations; they are complex machines, and like all such things, they are prone to failure, often catastrophic failure. They explode. They run aground. They collide with other ships. They lose their steering and strike businesses and houses on the tightly crowded shore, killing or maiming the people inside. Or they do some combination of these things. The list of possible failures doubles as a virtual catalogue of accidents that have actually occurred on the Bosporus in recent years. As traffic grows more intense, so too does the risk of more and perhaps more serious accidents.

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The Turks have taken steps to manage the flow. In 1994, after a nighttime collision between two oil tankers killed 26 crew members and closed the strait for five days, the Turkish government began imposing a series of new rules and regulations. A new traffic-separation scheme divided the strait like a highway; Ships longer than 200 meters (e.g. tankers) were forbidden to pass at night; The strait was closed to oncoming traffic while ships carrying hazardous cargoes were underway; Modern radar towers were built to monitor and regulate vessel positions. The Turkish government also encouraged all ships passing the Bosporus to take a Turkish pilot aboard, someone familiar with the strait's geography and weather, and whose presence on deck would presumably lessen the risk of accident. Indeed, only about fifteen percent of all accidents on the Bosporus involve ships with pilots, but still, more than half of all ships, including virtually all of Russia's merchant fleet, continue to refuse any help. The reason for this is not economic as much as it is political, part of a centuries-old struggle for regional power and influence. Simply put, the Russians think the Bosporus is rightfully theirs and bristle at any suggestion to the contrary.

One of the inevitable side effects of stricter regulation has been to slow the rate of traffic, leading to long cues of ships waiting at either end of the strait for their turn to get underway. If you drive along Istanbul's coastal highway, on any day of the year you'll see them lined up for miles, hundreds of them. Tankers, bulk carriers, and container ships—the workhorses of the world's economy all at a stand still. The cost of all this inactivity is significant. Simply to earn back the cost of their construction, oil tankers must be in constant motion, delivering their loads to meet the furious (and ever-growing) pace of world oil consumption. For every day that one of them sits idly at the mouth of the Bosporus, its owner loses upwards of $30,000. And delays of up to twenty days are not unheard of, particularly in the winter months when the weather worsens and demand for fossil fuels soars.

It's not surprising then that the world's major oil companies want to by-pass the Bosporus altogether, primarily by means of expensive new pipeline projects. Perhaps dozens of ideas have been floated over the years only to be discarded for various reasons. Eight remain under consideration, and one—the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which will carry one million barrels of Caspian oil a day overland from Azerbaijan to a deepwater port on Turkey's southern Mediterranean coast—has already opened for business. Turkey (with the enthusiastic support of the United States) hopes that the new pipeline will help form a "western route" for energy resources and effectively end Russia's status as the indispensable nation through which all Caspian oil must transit to reach foreign buyers.

Some of the larger oil companies have balked at the prospect of shifting their oil transport methods away from more traditional routes. The Russians, too, have refused to participate, mainly for reasons of principle. But the very economics of the pipeline are perhaps its greatest weakness. According to a 1999 study, the cost of moving a barrels-worth of oil by pipeline will likely be somewhere in the area of one or two dollars, whereas the cost of the moving the same amount by tanker through the Bosporus was at the time of the study only twenty cents. So, unless delays on the strait are severe enough to merit the increased costs, it seems likely that oil tankers will be a continuing presence on the Bosporus for many years to come, as will the inherent risks they bring with them.

[Note: For an excerpt from my reporters' notebook about my trip through the Bosporus on an oil tanker, click here.]