Bunkering brawl as Galicia agrees to refueling at anchor off its coastline

Environment minister denounced the practice in Gibraltar earlier this week

“Floating gas stations,” as seen on Tuesday in the waters around the Rock.
“Floating gas stations,” as seen on Tuesday in the waters around the Rock. A.Carrasco Ragel (EFE)

The refueling of ships, also known as bunkering, at sea was approved in Ferrol in Galicia just two months ago, despite the fact that it was banned in Algeciras by the government last December. The practice of bunkering at anchor, which is big business in the Strait of Gibraltar, is highly controversial due to the risk of fuel leaks.

Earlier this week the Spanish government attacked the practice in the latest in a series of disputes between Spain’s Popular Party (PP) government and the United Kingdom over Gibraltar. Recent tensions began with a disagreement over fishing rights in the disputed waters of the Bay of Algeciras. The Gibraltarian government then dropped concrete blocks into the bay to prevent Spanish boats from using what it claims are its waters.

This led to increased border checks by the Spanish authorities, allegedly to crack down on the amount of illegal tobacco coming from the British colony. Both Britain and Spain are currently considering whether to take legal recourse over the dispute.

Last December, the Bay of Algeciras was declared a Special Conservation Zone by the Ministry of the Environment, which also banned bunkering “at anchor” and other hazardous practices in the area. However, since then no action has been taken, despite the fact that bunkering “at anchor” — that is, out at sea rather than in port — is very common in the bay. On Tuesday Environment Minister Miguel Arias Cañete said that the government “would not quiver” when it came to imposing the law in the waters off Gibraltar.

It is a risky maneuver that often causes hydrocarbons to leak into the sea”

Many large ships choose to use this technique rather than going into harbor in order to save both time and money on port fees. Last year the Port of Algeciras provided over 30 percent of Spain’s bunkering and it is the seventh-busiest container port in Europe. The environmental group Greenpeace has carried out various protests against ship-to-ship bunkering in the Strait of Gibraltar. A report by the group says: “[Bunkering is] a risky maneuver because it often causes hydrocarbons to leak into the sea. It is generally carried out with small barges that carry around 5,000 tons.

“Bunkering activities in the Bay happen as much in the port of Algeciras as in Gibraltar.

“In the case of Gibraltar the practice carries more risk as the supply comes from boats at anchor — so-called floating gas stations — which can hold more than 80,000 metric tons of fuel.” These bunker customers’ ships and are also themselves refilled at sea.

“This procedure carries an enormous risk of pollution from spills resulting from the various transfers, which are carried out without adequate measures of prevention.”

Gibraltar Port Authority’s website denies this claim. “Safety and environmental concerns are given top priority by the Government, which applies strict regulations. The Bunkering Code of Practice was completely revised in January 2011 and the Bunkering Superintendent continuously monitors all operations in the Port,” they claim.

Bunker fuel, which Friends of the Earth’s Teri Shore calls “the dirtiest fuel on the planet,” is a type of oil used in shipping because it is cheap. It is a byproduct of the oil refining process.

“If it’s too thick and too complex to combust in an engine, we make tar out of it. But if it’s still able to be heated and to flow through a pipe, we call it bunker fuel,” explains James Corbett, from the University of Delaware’s College of Marine and Earth Studies.

Bunker fuel is “the dirtiest on the planet," according to Friends of the Earth

Galicia is particularly sensitive to oil spill worries as it was where, in 2002, the Prestige oil tanker sank and polluted thousands of kilometers of coastline in Spain, Portugal and France. The region’s fishing sector was badly affected by the disaster.

Campaigners are currently urging the Spanish government to make the area a Special Conservation Zone, like Algeciras.

The Port Authority of Ferrol has dismissed local protests, saying that the new plans for bunkering at sea would actually be safer than the previous system in which refueling happened in the port itself. They also pointed to the economic benefits for the region.

“Keep in mind that a trait that distinguishes the major ports in each country, both in Europe and in North America and in key Asian ports is the ability of ships to take fuel,” says the Port Authority, calling the move “highly beneficial to the region.”

The Agriculture and Environment Ministry said on Tuesday that “no Spanish port” permitted bunkering at anchor, and emphasized that the plans in Ferrol involve different techniques to those used in Gibraltar. Environmental Minister Arias Cañete was, until 2011, president of Petrolífera Ducar, a company whose website describes its activities as “providing storage and delivering for bunkering.”

Galician Socialist secretary general, Beatriz Sestayo, condemned the plans, saying it was “extraordinary” that “while the minister Arias Cañete was confirming tough measures on bunkering [...] this practice had just been authorized by the Port Authority of Ferrol, with its president, José Manuel Vilariño, also of the PP, at its head.

“While Cañete accuses those who practice bunkering at anchor of environmental crimes, his party colleagues allow it in the Ferrol Estuary.”

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