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Ronnie Sookhdeo

The Stench of Oil Profit

(May 1978)

From Militant, No. 406, 19 May 1978, p. 3.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“We knew that a disaster had occurred because of the stench of oil which hung over the whole area.” This was the comment of one of the villagers in Brittany, following the sinking of the Amoco Cadiz, which released 220,000 tons of crude oil – described as the world’s worst oil spillage – onto 300 miles of beach.

Exactly seven weeks later, this disaster was repeated for the residents of Corton, a tiny camping site near Great Yarmouth.

They awoke to find their area engulfed in thick black oil. The cause this time was the 12,000 ton Greek oil tanker, the Eleni V, which was sliced into by the French merchant vessel, the Roseline.

Accidents like this are not acts of God but arise from the incompetence, corruption and greed of the oil and shipping barons in their lust for easy and quick profits.

What is the basis for these charges? Most of the oil discharged into the sea is the result of deliberate policy on the part of shipping monopolies. Before the closure of the Suez Canal, oil tankers returning to the Gulf with oil residues and waste still in the ballast found that the Canal authorities regarded it as cargo and it was therefore subject to dues. So the waste was discharged into the seas.

This is now widely practised and is having frightening repercussions. In the last few years port authorities have imposed a ban on empty oil tankers entering the harbours unless their ballasts are completely free of the combustible gas left behind when the oil is discharged.

This fear of explosion has led to the port authorities in Valetta, Malta, for example, banning all oil tankers. In order to use the harbour facilities the tankers therefore use the most expedient method, that is flushing out the tanks with sea water.


At present the release of oily ballast water accounts for 1.5 million out of the 1.8 million tons of oil discharged annually into the sea. The Mediterranean alone receives 100,000 tons of oil annually. The Gulf of Muggia near Trieste, which receives effluent from a complex of refineries, has become a biological desert – devoid of even the most primitive plant life.

Oil Clots

Recent evidence has suggested that the oceans are rapidly approaching this state. Thor Heyerdahl describes a grim scene of oil pollution in the Atlantic during his crossing with the papyrus raft Ra 1. A few days out of the harbour of Safi in Morocco he and his companions found themselves sailing through a mass of opaque water containing large quantities of solidified oil clots.

Two days after escaping this polluted area they came across another, and yet another, in mid-ocean. Some six hundred miles off Barbados, they sailed in polluted waters for two days.

New Regulations?

The increasing concern and growing militancy of trade unions and environmentalists in both America and Europe, together with the unprecedented series of thirteen tanker accidents in the US alone, has caused President Carter to re-examine existing tanker regulations.

He has called for an international conference under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organisation (IMCO), the United Nations Agency concerned with shipping. Their suggestion is that all existing tankers of 20,000 deadweight tons or more should be fitted with segregated ballast tanks (SBTs).

The use of separate tanks removes the need to fill cargo tanks with sea water to maintain the tanker’s stability after unloading. This has immediately been attacked by oil monopolies on the grounds that the cost of converting existing tankers to SBT would be too high – figures of $300,000 to $3m per vessel have been quoted.

They in turn have advocated a combination of techniques known as ‘crude oil washing’ and ‘load on top’. These two processes they argue, would “only” discharge 130,000 tons of oil annually into the sea.

From the point of view of the working class, however, fitting tankers with SBTs would not only go a long way towards purifying the seas, and cutting down the risk of further disasters. It would also provide much needed jobs to thousands of shipyard workers, suffering from the decline of their industry.

Clean Up

The oil and shipping monopolies have grown fat at our expense and at the expense of the environment. The trade unions must force them to foot the bill to clean up the environment. If they refuse they must be cleaned out themselves by full socialist measures.

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