by Adrian Drago
The oil spill incident in the Gulf of Mexico is an eye-opener to similar situations that may happen elsewhere. Damages from such large oil slicks would be even more devastating in a semi-enclosed sea like the Mediterranean. Advances in technology are allowing the exploration for oil in deeper sea areas, but one has to question whether technology is also improving in the mitigation and control of associated risks and hazards. The dire experience from the Gulf of Mexico should make authorities think twice before conceding exploration permits to oil companies. Certainly there is a need for tighter regulation and more rigorous operational controls and monitoring procedures.
The Central Mediterranean including the area of sea close to the Maltese Islands is known to be an area of interest for oil exploration and extraction. However we hardly realise the real threats that such installations may put on the marine ecosystem in general, and the damage to economic assets of riparian countries that may be hit by a catastrophic event such as that in the Gulf of Mexico. In the case of the Maltese Islands there is already a great threat of oil spills from ship traffic close to our islands, especially in the stretch of sea known as the Malta Channel which separates us from the southern shores of Sicily. 90% of the total oil traffic in the Mediterranean follows the Egypt-Gibraltar route, passing close to our islands. In addition, the Maltese Islands are very close to the oil refinery in Gela, Sicily, as well as to numerous crude oil loading ports in Sicily. Moreover oil tankers are known to use the area of sea to the east of Malta, known as Hurds Bank, for long parking periods at sea while they keep their oil in store for better prices.
This spearheads the need to be ready to respond to any eventual threat of oil hitting our coasts. The Gulf Coast oil spill response teams have at their disposal the U.S. latest technologies to maximise clean-up efforts, and yet this has proved to be insufficient. Indeed oil spill response remains much a total of low-tech actions that mainly require skilled manpower and traditional equipment to combat the oil, but in the case of large oil spills more sophisticated tools and techniques become essential. The capacities to observe, follow and predict ahead of time the fate of an oil spill are key elements to response and contingency planning against the impact of hazardous oil on important coastal resources. The Gulf Coast rescue team is availing of uninterrupted satellite data that provide pictures of the oil spill incident area and enable a precise assessment of its extent and evolution. This kind of data used to be available several days after its acquisition; advances in telecommunications, today permit the transmission of such data to rescue teams in just less than two hours. Moreover marine data-gathering buoys and other oceanographic sensors deployed in the area provide instant information about atmospheric conditions, sea waves and currents, tides, temperature and other essential parameters that provide updates about sea conditions. Computer models are systematically using this information to provide analysis on the expected evolution and spreading of the oil slick. Automated unmanned vehicles are used to reach deep sea areas in an attempt to monitor and control the leak.
The big question is about how much of this technology would be available in the case of a spill in the area of the Maltese Islands. On a national scale, the maritime section of Transport Malta have recently completed plans for the setting up of an oil spill response capability for the protection of Malta's seas. Oil spill models which anticipate the evolution of an oil spill before it beaches and serve as a tool to plan an adequate response to divert its path and limit ?damages. The Maltese Islands, and indeed the Central Mediterranean area in general, still lag far behind and lack even the basic oceanographic infrastructure that would at least ascertain the marine data flows in some extent near to those achieved in the Gulf of Mexico.
Simulation of the movement of a fictitious oil slick approaching the Maltese Islands from the NorthWest under the influence of predominant surface currents and winds. Courtesy of the PO-Unit, University of Malta.
There is a general wrong perception that the predominant south-southeasterly surface currents brushing against the Maltese Islands would tend to move pollution in proximity of the islands away towards east with no return. But this is proved to be a wrong assessment. ?All these pointers are warning us to treat the menace of oil pollution with high concern. There are already some initial building blocks in place, but national and international efforts still need to fit concrete and practical actions, and to at least secure the essentials to avoid being caught unprepared. Oil companies exploiting resources in the area should be amongst the first to support the riparian countries to build the necessary infrastructure and capacity.