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Nordics, Baltics seek control Russia tanker traffic

29th August 2003

By Anna Peltola


Nordic and Baltic states said on Friday they would apply for U.N. help to control rising Russian oil exports via the Baltic Sea to help avert spills that could wreck beaches and threaten fish stocks.

Russia, the world's second largest oil exporter behind Saudi Arabia, opposes the idea and aims to come up with its own proposals for tighter controls of rising tanker traffic.

"We will put forward an application to the IMO (International Maritime Organisation)," Swedish Environment Minister Lena Sommerstad told a news conference after a two-day meeting of ministers from the region.

She said that the countries, apart from Russia, wanted the Baltic Sea to be declared a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) that could force tankers to stick to narrow routes and oblige them to use pilots near the coast.

Sommerstad said she hoped the IMO would deal with the application at a meeting in March. Russia would make proposals of its own next month.

Norway said in April that it would seek similar protection for the Arctic Barents Sea north of Russia, letting it ban tankers from 50 nautical miles from its rocky coasts.

Russia frowns on the idea of PSSA status. "We don't see any legal reason to support this idea," Irina Osokina, a Russian deputy minister responsible for environmental issues, said in Lulea on Thursday.

The Baltic Sea states and environmental organisations have urged Russia to outlaw the use of oil tankers which they feel are not strong enough to cope with the ice that covers much of the Baltic Sea in winter.

Even in the summer, they fear leaks especially from single-hulled tankers. The single-hulled Prestige sank after spilling part of its cargo of 77,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil off the Spanish and French coasts last year.

Environmentalists say an oil spill in the Baltic and Barents Sea could be even more harmful because the harsh climate means nature is slower to recover. The Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska in 1989 caused lingering damage.

With a PSSA rating -- so far protecting only five sea areas such as Australia's Great Barrier Reef -- the coastal states could impose restrictions even on vessels travelling through international waters.

Oil exports in the Baltic Sea will rise to 120 million tonnes annually by 2017 from 80 million tonnes in 1997 as new oil terminals in Russia are completed, according to HELCOM, an international government-backed environmental secretariat.

In the Barents Sea, some forecasts project that oil transport from Russia could multiply to 40 million tonnes annually by 2010, or four or five tankers a day from a current one.