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Turkey Turns Focus To Tanker-Clogged Strait

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Turkey Turns Focus To Tanker-Clogged Strait

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Turkey Turns Focus To Tanker-Clogged Strait

Turkey Turns Focus To Tanker-Clogged Strait

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The Gulf oil spill has Turks once again examining their own tanker-clogged Bosphorus Strait. Turkey says it wants to avoid collisions and groundings in the narrow entrance to the Black Sea, but the safeguards it can impose are restricted by international treaty. Environmentalists say Turkey's focus on tanker traffic is fine, but ignores potentially greater dangers from some of its own pet projects — including pipelines and Black Sea offshore wells that are even deeper than the one that caused the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The aftermath of the Gulf spill has other countries reexamining their own vulnerability to oil pollution. In Turkey, calls have grown for tougher safety measures in the Bosphorus Strait - one of the busiest and most treacherous waterways in the world. But there's also a growing focus on other dangers, including drilling platforms in the Black Sea operating at much greater depths than the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON: The Turkish Straits linking the Black Sea to the Marmora, Aegean and Mediterranean Seas are a world-class chokepoint for oil shipping. From the air, the Bosphorus resembles a snake sliding between the European and Asian continents, barely a half mile wide at its narrowest. From the water, it's a beautiful place for a traffic jam.

On any given day, the Bosphorus is swarming with ships. Tiny pleasure boats flit beside lumbering cruise ships. Nearby, a naval gunship passes a fully loaded cargo vessel riding low in the water - an estimated 50,000 vessels a year of which more than 5,000 are oil tankers navigating the tricky currents to fetch loads of Black Sea oil down from markets around the world.

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KENYON: You might consider this a situation ripe for accidents, and the Bosphorus has seen its share. More than its share, say environmentalists. In 1960, '79 and '94, Turks witnessed collisions, groundings, explosions, the Bosphorus ablaze with oil. It was only a few years ago that Turkey installed a radar-based vessel traffic system to enhance navigation.

Hasan Sarikaya, an official with Turkey's Environment Ministry, says Turkey doesn't need more pictures of oiled birds to remind it of what could happen here, but he welcomes the spike in public awareness.

Mr. HASAN SARIKAYA (Undersecretary of Turkey's Ministry of Environment and Forest): (Through Translator) Accidents like the one in the Gulf show us how much risk we're facing. These kinds of events make us question things.

KENYON: Turkey reserves the right to oversee the straits and has managed to keep the very biggest oil tankers out of the Bosphorus. But its hands are tied in key respects by international agreements, some several decades old, that give primacy to commercial shipping and make basic safety measures such as tugboat escorts optional rather than mandatory.

Suleyman Kanburoglu with Mare Sea Cleaning Services says Turkey did manage to impose one-way tanker traffic in the Bosphorus not long ago but only as a temporary measure because of the construction of an underwater vehicle tunnel.

Standing in front of a map of the Bosphorus in his office, he says it's clear to him that Turkey should want to keep such safety measures in place.

Mr. SULEYMAN KANBUROGLU (Mare Sea Cleaning Services): First of all, the one-way traffic should be kept going on definitely. It's definite. And tugboat assistance should be installed. That's also very clear. Because the collisions, I mean, if one big collision happens here and Bosphorus close for traffic for months who would benefit from that fact?

KENYON: Some critics say if Turkey is looking for lessons to take from the Gulf disaster, it might start with its own drilling now underway in the Black Sea. Turkey is desperate to reduce its dependence on imported energy and has high hopes for an exploratory well announced this spring that's drilling in more than 6,000 feet of water. That's over a thousand feet deeper than the site of the Gulf blowout. The industry says it can be done safely, and that accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon are rare exceptions.

Peter Taylor works for an industry-funded oil spill preparedness group.

Mr. PETER TAYLOR (Project Manager, Oil Spill Regional Initiative for the Caspian and Black Sea): In the last few years, what we've seen is great progress in cooperation between the countries exercising and training to ensure that if there is a problem, of course, we should hope that these problems don't occur and put the efforts into prevention. But if incidents do occur, to ensure that the countries are prepared.

KENYON: Ahmed Kadesh(ph), a marine biologist with a multinational commission to protect the Black Sea, says the BP spill showed the scale of destruction that an accident at those depths can bring, but he says the Black Sea brings its own unique perils to the six nations that share its borders.

Mr. AHMED KADESH (Marine Biologist): The Black Sea is a small area, and the currents are very dynamic. You put any particle into the sea, it may go in other areas, and it's fast. Plus, it will also flow like a river to the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmora.

KENYON: Some say the primary lesson from the Gulf spill should be to proceed with extreme caution in the Black Sea. The Obama administration imposed a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling following the BP spill, and the European Union's energy commissioner endorsed the idea for Europe.

Biologist Ahmed Kadesh can't speak for the Black Sea Commission on the question of a moratorium, but he has his own views.

Mr. KADESH: My personal idea, wholeheartedly supporting that idea, definitely, until we are sure these things almost never happen, we shall have a moratorium.

KENYON: But analysts say dramatic measures such as a moratorium are unlikely so long as the pressure to feed the global demand for oil remains a dominant force in the region.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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