Raising awkward questions about the tanker industry’s past may help to prevent loss of life and property in the future
Tensions are ramping up in the Strait of Hormuz, the sole sea passage linking the Gulf to the open ocean and an export corridor carrying 30% of global crude oil capacity.
Angry rhetoric from Iran in response to US sanctions designed to cripple Iranian crude oil revenue has, in recent weeks, been followed by increasingly dangerous incidents. These include a US naval flotilla being harassed by small boats and a drone, allegedly operated by Iran, that prevented a US Navy fighter jet from landing on a US aircraft carrier.
However, these incidents – aimed at military vessels – pale in comparison to the threats faced by tankers in the relatively recent past.
As I researched an article on tanker trade chokepoints, I read through the news reports from the Iran-Iraq war 36 years ago telling of tankers sailing into the middle of the war zone. The reports were cold and flat, matter-of-fact even when reporting on tankers facing direct hits from rocket-propelled grenades while on the way to pick up crude oil at Iranian and Iraqi export terminals. It was, it seems, business as usual for the owners and charterers and for the crews, too.
Trade went on, heeding the public demand that “the oil must get through”, no matter what the danger or the potential costs.
As the recent skirmishes in the region prompt fears of the potential for greater conflict, I began to wonder how modern tanker industry responses to a regional conflict might differ from those of 36 years ago.
One major shift that jumped out at me from those 1980s reports are the technological advances that have become an industry norm.
At the time, the only way to confirm the identity of a vessel that had taken fire was through a visual identification by military forces in the region. Any strike on a tanker trading in the region today would be confirmed by a dozen or so AIS services following the track of the unfortunate vessel nearly to the minute and linking it to databases showing ownership, charterer and in some cases the trader and cargo receiver involved in recent transactions.
Those near instantaneous reports would, I believe, trigger a public response on behalf of the seafarers sailing into harm’s way. The public demand of 36 years ago that “the oil must get through” would be replaced by a public rightly appalled by unarmed tankers entering conflict zones in the name of oil, and would dictate a stark shift the tanker industry's response.
We all hope that the conflict does not escalate and that tankers in the region do not become targets. Nonetheless, it is wise to be prepared, to learn from history, and to consider how the tanker industry would or should respond in case a tanker becomes a target -- or even an unintended casualty -- of politically-motivated aggression. What do you think? Are we prepared to make the right decision?
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