Action against the pollution of the seas by oil

How was the international regime for protecting the oceans against the pollution from oil-tankers successful?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

33 Pages, Grade: 2,4


Table of contents


List of references

Handout for the presentation in the seminar

1 Introduction and academic method

2 A deadly collection of ecological issues for the high seas
2.1 Accidents and unintended actions
2.2 Intended oil-discharging on sea

3 International Maritime Organisation, or the arise of a regime
3.1 Pre-MARPOL 73/78 agreements
3.2 The MARPOL 73/78 agreement and its amendments

4 Regime-induced modifications and procedures at oil-tankers
4.1 Load-on-top technique
4.2 Segregation and protective location of ballast tanks
4.3 Crude-oil-washing
4.4 Single-hull turned into double-hull tankers
4.5 Assessment of the actions taken – and ideas beyond

5 Conclusion


For a long time oceans were seen as vast and restless. In recent years, however, this view has changed since the pollution of the sea became an ever serious problem. Fairly cleaned liquids as well as various waste-pieces have massive implications on the maritime life. In addition, intentionally discharged as well as accidentally released oil-products propose a huge challenge to the global community.

Therefore the essay elaborates on this ecological issue with focus on oil-tankers as well as it lists up international actions taken against it. These are regime-induced (MARPOL 73/78) modifications at the ships itself such as load on top, segregated and protectively located ballast tanks, crude-oil-washing and double-hulls.

The hypothesis of the paper is that the international measures taken have been adequate in general and changed the discharging habits of the industry lastingly. The agreements also seem to have made it possible to have the oceans nowadays less polluted than it assumably would have been without them. Therefore, apart from minor potential future corrections, the international regime for protecting the oceans against the pollution from oil-tankers was rather successful.


List of references

Asendorpf (2006): Asendorpf, D., Es läuft etwas schief aus See, DIE ZEIT, Nr.37, p41, Hamburg 9/7/06

Backhaus (1992): Backhaus-Lautenschläger, C., Ölwehr: Luftüberwachung verstärkt - Suchelektronik für Gewässerschutz, Handelsblatt, Nr.92, pB4, Düsseldorf 5/13/92

Carpenter (2005): Carpenter, A., The reduction of ship-generated waste in the North Sea: A contemporary analysis, PhD thesis at the University of Leeds, Leeds 2005

COP (1996): Committee on oil pollution, Effects of double-hull requirements on oil spill prevention, National Academy Press, Washington 1996

Dahlmann (1994): Dahlmann, G. et al, Oiled seabirds – comparative investigations on oiled seabirds and oiled beaches in Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany 1990 - 1993, MARPOL Bulletin, vol.28, No.5, London, 1994

Fichtner (2003): Fichtner, U., Die schwarze Front, Der Spiegel, Nr.7, p58, Hamburg 2/10/03

Frey/Huelsmann (1993): Frey, P., / Huelsmann, A., Mehr Sicherheit mit doppelter Hülle, VDI Nachrichten, Nr.3, p4, Düsseldorf 1/22/93

Grosso (2006): Grosso, O., Tödliches Treibgut der Konsumkultur, Handelsblatt Nr.128, p9, Düsseldorf 7/6/06

Heumer (1999): Heumer, W., Das Risiko fährt immer mit: Mehr als jeder dritte Tanker weltweit gilt als überaltert und unsicher, VDI Nachrichten, Nr.51, p8, Düsseldorf 12/24/99

Heydemann (1992): Heydemann, B., Kiel will die kostenlose Entsorgung von Ölresten im Hafen nicht mehr fortführen, Handelsblatt, Nr.24, p4, Düsseldorf 2/4/92

Hollmann (2002): Hollmann, M., Die Artenverschleppung über Ballastwasser ist ein bislang ungelöstes Problem, VDI Nachrichten, Nr.3, p6, Düsseldorf 3/28/02

Holloway (1999): Holloway, M., Oil in water, Technology and Business - Environment, Scientific American, Vol.3/99, p39, New York 1999

Huijer (n.a.): Huijer, K., Trends in oil spills from tanker ships 1995 – 2004, Intl. Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, London [Internet 9/14/06] http://www.

IMO (1978): Intl. Maritime Organisation, International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships – modified by the Protocol of 1978 (MARPOL 73/78), London [Internet 9/9/06]

IMO (1996): International Maritime Organisation, Focus on IMO: Tanker safety – the work of the International Maritime Organisation, IMO, London 1996

IMO (1998a): International Maritime Organisation, Focus on IMO: MARPOL – 25 years, IMO, London 1998

IMO (1998b): International Maritime Organisation, Focus on IMO: Preventing Marine Pollution – The environmental threat, IMO, London 1998

IMO (n.a.1): International Maritime Organisation, IMO description of Crude-oil-washing, London [Internet 9/9/06]

IMO (n.a.2): International Maritime Organisation, Tanker safety - preventing accidental pollution, London [Internet 9/9/06]

ITOPF (n.a.): International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited, Trends in oil spills, London [Internet 9/9/06]

Mitchell (1994): Mitchell, R., International oil pollution at sea: environmental policy and treaty compliance, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, 1994

Morell (1997): Morell, Th., Gefahr durch Öl in der Nordsee, Der Tagesspiegel, Nr.16153, p40, Berlin 11/6/97

N.N. (1987a): N.N., Nur magere Aussichten auf Fortschritte, Handelsblatt, Nr.170, p6, Düsseldorf 9/7/87

N.N. (1987b): N.N., Schmutziger Lorbeer, Wirtschaftswoche, Nr.1, p66, Düsseldorf 1/2/87

N.N. (1990a): N.N., Briten bestehen auf Verklappung, Handelsblatt, Nr.31, p10, Düsseldorf 2/13/90

N.N. (1990b): N.N., Umweltzerstörung durch Ölverschmutzung auf See ist nicht tragbar, Handelsblatt, Nr.8, p20, Düsseldorf 1/11/90

N.N. (1999): N.N., Im Öl-Tanker-Geschäft gelten nur wenige Sicherheitsnormen, Der Tagesspiegel, Nr.16919, p24, Berlin 12/30/99

N.N. (2002): N.N., Freispruch für Öltanker, Der Spiegel, Nr.23, p163, Hamburg 6/3/02

Nelson (n.a.): Nelson, P., Pollution from ships: A global perspective, [Internet 9/14/06]

Nixon (1998): Nixon, S.W., The oceans: Enriching the sea to death, Scientific American, p48-53, New York 1998

Peet (1994): Peet, G., International co-operation to prevent oil-spills at sea: Not quite the success it should be, in: Bergesen, H. / Parmann, G. (eds.), Green globe yearbook of international cooperation on environment and development, University Press, Oxford 1994

Scheerer (2000): Scheerer, M., EU bleibt Konsequenzen aus jüngster Ölpest schuldig, Handelsblatt, Nr.124, p12, Düsseldorf 6/30/00

Sesin (2000): Sesin, C.-P., Der Kampf gegen Ölsünder zeigt erst wenig Wirkung, Handelsblatt, Nr.49, p53, Düsseldorf 3/9/00

Smil (1997): Smil, V., Global population and the nitrogen cycle, Scientific American, p76-81, Vol.7/97, New York 1997

Strassmann (2002): Strassmann, B., Sauber auf See - Erstmals wird ein Schiff mit dem "Blauen Engel" ausgezeichnet, DIE ZEIT, Nr.47, p45, Hamburg 11/14/02

Tchobanoglos (2003): Tchobanoglos, G, et al, Wastewater Engineering, 4th ed. , McGraw-Hill, New York City 2003

USCOP (n.a.): U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, Clear water ahead: Coastal and ocean water quality, Washington [Internet 9/14/06] prelimreport/ 05_clear_waters.pdf

West (2006): West, L., A Billion People Worldwide Lack Safe Drinking Water, [Internet 3/26/06]

White / Baker (1998): White, I., / Baker, J., The sea empress oil spill in context, Paper for the conference on oil empress spill – Cardiff, 02/13/98, International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, London [Internet 9/14/06]

Willer (1988): Willer, K., Zahlmeister gesucht, Wirtschaftswoche, Nr.19, p127, Düsseldorf 5/6/88

Handout for the presentation in the seminar

23 November 2004 - Potsdam University

Seminar ‘International regimes: Theory, empirics and policy’

Presenter: Michael A Braun, BA

Action against pollution of the sea – Regime induced innovation

Supervision of oil discharging by specific industrial requirements

Do you remember 24 March 1989? It was the day when super-tanker Exxon Valdez spilled about 35,000 tons of oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska. As probably most people you might think, such accidents are the main reason of oil pollution at sea. You are wrong! In fact they are not as far as bad as the normal discharges from usual operating tankers.

According to Mitchell tankers transported in 1953 some 250m tons of crude oil by sea and intentionally discharged some 300,000 of them. Yet 25 years later the growing volume of oil transported has increased the amount of discharged oil as well to some 5m tons a year (estimation). Over all this is responsible for about two third of ship-generated oil pollution. Only one third is because of accidents and of discharges that do not come from tankers.

But what is the reason for discharging oil? Image a bottle of milk. Once you have emptied it, there still is some white liquid at the walls - and that is the same with oil tankers. Once they have delivered their precious cargo, a small fraction still remains to the walls. Further on, as you want to use your bottle (or oil tanker) again you have to clean it. For this purpose two practises are widely used from the beginning since oil is transported by sea.

One is filling up the transportation tanks with seawater. The reason is not only cleaning but also as ballast to stabilize the empty ship while navigating to the next loading destination. The other one just means putting seawater with high pressure to the walls. Independent what method is used, both rinse the leftovers completely away – and into sea. Over all the oil-water-mixture (slops) represents only 0.3 to 0.5 % of total cargo – but you have to imagine the size of such super-tanker.

Therefore result is that oil pollution has got the longest history of international attraction.

1926: First international conference on oil pollution

1954: Intl. Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil (OILPOL)

1973: Intl. Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL 73)

1978: Protocol to the MARPOL 73 (known together as MARPOL 73/78)

In the beginning (1926 & 1956) consultations were more or less some get together rather than outcome oriented. Compared to this MARPOL 73 – and later 78 - has lead to results. Over all lower reliance on humans at sea and a clear self-enforceable mechanism were the aims to be reached. Nevertheless at both there were debates from either ship-producing or ship-running countries. This becomes clear when talking about contents of the protocols.

To prevent the sea from further oil pollution caused by discharging, MARPOL 73/78 fixed two possible strategies: One is the method of segregated ballast tanks (SBT). This means tankers may have a separation of cargo, lines and slops inside. Obviously, this is preferred by ship-building countries since it involves higher turnover to their national shipyards. The other one is crude-oil-washing (COW). Idea is to reduce the waste of oil by dividing oil and seawater before pumping the same back to sea. In this way it seems to be a cheap environmental alternative. This is preferred by ship-running countries and their ship-owners.

As a compromise the new requirements were put into practise as follows from 1979 onwards: SBT had to be built in ships that were produced newly afterwards; SBT or COW into the existing fleet. Therefore additional costs occurred for ship-owners that were not paid by the forcing governments nor someone else but by themselves. Over all these costs reeached from two to nine percent of the final price. Further on the – less time-intensive - maintenance of SBT is more expensive than COW. But this necessarily leads to the need of higher tonnage to make the same profits. Compared to this COW causes additional costs of only 1/3 of SBT – and is very attractive in oil crisis since it saves precious raw material.

From the more academic point of view this regime seems to be self-enforcing indeed. The reason is the cooperation of all actors involved. Since MARPOL 73/78 was a widely accepted protocol it became international law. Therefore ship-owners, ship-crews, oil companies and shipyards had to comply. Otherwise they would face massive problems with their own and foreign governments, port authorities and insurances.

In this way equipment standards simplify the task of monitoring compared to discharging standards greatly. For the global public it obviously is far easier to supervise just few big players as mentioned than some 7,000 tankers around the world (1984). Moreover the costs of this regime were in an economical sense quite low. Since it caused success (environment) and generated turnover, the additional cost to any litre of oil were little.

Used literature and websites:

Mitchell, Ronald. International oil pollution at sea: environmental policy and treaty compliance. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, 1994 – International Maritime Organization (UN) – Scientific American magazine

1 Introduction and academic method

Water pollution at land as well as at sea is a serious problem in the global context. It has been suggested that it is worldwide the leading cause of death and disease.[1] Although natural phenomena (volcanoes, earthquakes etc.) also cause a decrease of quality, man-made water pollution is the biggest issue. This is easy to understand because humans accepted the oceans for a long time as vast and restless.

In these days liquid and substantial waste that came off land or was discharged at sea seemed to be just a ‘drop into a giant, sloshing bucket’.[2] Nowadays scientists know this was wrong. Fairly cleaned liquids such as domestic sewage and industrial wastewater as well as waste-pieces from household and industrial use have strong implications on the maritime life – and they lead back to the life at land.[3]

The sources of this accepted pollution are various. Sewage containing detergents, fertilizers and pesticides are spilt in. Hazardous outflows from construction sites and farms as well as acid rain round the menu.[4] But not only land-based, also sea-generated wastes from cruise- and cargo-ships challenge the oceans. Even intentionally (!) discharged oil[5] -products, which is nowadays not acceptable any more.

According to the question, the essay is focusing on action against the oil-pollution of the seas with respect to the one generated by oil-tankers. Of all ships, they account for the vast majority of oil due to their operational and accidental spills. However, one has to bear in mind that all cargo transport produces waste; and sea-transport is no exception. The crews, the handling and even the engines produce it. Therefore ships are not special apart from their size and area of operation.

But ocean ships were usually seen as environmentally friendlier.[6] Compared to the amount they carry, they only need a fraction of fuel. However, this does not take into account additional polluting activities such as the release of oily liquids generated during operations, poisoning paint for the hull and the uncleaned exhausts.

Of these pollutions, oil-discharging is the most extensively studied one because it is estimated to contribute strongly to the decrease of the quality and cleanness of the marine environment. Furthermore it is the number one concern of the public, when it comes to the health of the oceans. This mourning, unfortunately, seems to come up only especially after major accidents. The continuing oil-pollution of the seas by indented releases is not known or not wanted to be seen. But a spill of any size can have massive effects, regardless its source or the area where it occurred.

For the essay, available data and literature in books, periodicals and industry-papers has been looked at from a sceptical perspective since all can only be estimations. In addition, a lot seems to have been launched or supported by lobbyists from either side. However, it is not surprising that research produces different results depending on affiliation. A useful indication is the findings anyway; whereas they do not provide an answer on the question, they still give indication.[7]

And a general trend can be detected – towards fewer intentional and accidental[8] oil-spills. In the same time this is also the hypothesis of the paper: The regime, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships[9] – known as MARPOL 73/78 – is able to regulate and eventually minimise ship-generated pollution of the seas when it comes to oil. So it is assumed the regime was successful.

To gain insight on the topic, the outline of the paper is as follows: a collection of ecological issues regarding maritime pollution will be presented after the introduction. This is followed by an elaboration on accidental and intended oil-discharging at sea. Later there is an introduction on the International Maritime Organisation, pre-MARPOL 73/78 agreements as well as the actual agreement and its amendments. At this point there will be also the four main regime-induced modifications at oil-tankers brought in. They are: load-on-top, the segregation and protective location of ballast tanks, crude-oil-washing and double-hulls. They will be explained en detail and their results are shown. This is followed by an assessment of the actions taken as well as a brief conclusion, which finalizes the essay.

2 A deadly collection of ecological issues for the high seas

As outlined, high seas are contaminated in many ways.[10] The most often referred to are: marine debris, coastal water pollution, invasive species, vessel safety and vessel pollution. According to the topic, the essay will specify only on ship-[11] generated oil-discharging. But because all issues lead to the general deterioration of the water quality, they are listed up here for a better understanding.

The dumping of these (toxic) substances, usually plastic waste, happens from cruise ships[12] or by pouring in through rivers from the inner land as well as from coastal cities into the sea. So, experts estimate at least 300.000 pieces of plastics, the marine debris, swimming on each square kilometre of ocean-surface.[13] Plastic waste is seen as being able to ‘survive’ 100 years and more on oceans. In this time it erodes, but never completely disappears[14] and if animals eat it, it harms them.

But marine debris is more than plastic; it consists also of smoking leftovers, maritime activities (fishing, drilling) and even lost container cargo, that can be found some thousands of miles away from their origin. Experts estimate 80% of the total debris being washed off or blown in. The rest is seen as being discharged at sea.[15]

Another issue is nitrogen or phosphorous, which are essential ingredients of plant fertilizers.[16] Together with pesticides and heavy metals they are also washed away, in this case from farmland, and spilt at the coasts and into the high seas by rivers and rainfall. There the two substances fulfil their task nearly as good as at land – they grow organisms such as algae and contribute to the change of balance.


[1] Tchobanoglos (2003) – pp12: This statement was made especially for water-resources at land.

[2] Nixon (1998) – p51

[3] USCOP (n.a.) – pp155

[4] ibid / West (2006)

[5] Oil can refer to many different materials, including crude oil, refined petroleum products or its by-products as well as oily ballast water.

[6] Strassmann (2002)

[7] In this context what is missing, is information about the extent of environmental damage caused by oil-spills. Of course this is available for areas in which accidents occurred. But what is with all the unnamed places that get contaminated every day by operational oil discharges from vessels?

[8] It is often stated that the number of (serious) tanker accidents went down dramatically as well as the amount of oil discharged. Therefore many consider MARPOL 73 / 78 to be very successful.

[9] IMO (1978)

[10] Strassmann (2002) – This goes with a massive pollution of the maritime air. Large ships release with the exhaust huge amounts of harmful substances. One number: Within harbour cities, that accounts for up to 80% of the total air pollution – including traffic and industrial activity.

[11] Ships pollute oceans in many ways: oil-spills and dioxide from exhausts, noise that disturbs the wildlife, and the water from ballast tanks that spreads harmful algae and invasive species.

[12] Grosso (2006) – Though ships have to dispose waste properly by law, some still do not care, but discharge their various wastes right away at sea.

[13] ibid – This could be things like old fishing nets, plastic bottles and shopping bags.

[14] ibid – Experts found, that plastic parts tend to shrink and break. Nevertheless, little pieces, so called micro plastics with less than 0,3 mm size, still remain in the oceans life circle.

[15] USCOP (n.a.) – pp211

[16] Nixon (1998) – The growing world population consumes an ever larger amount of these materials. Its factor doubled only between 1950 and 1985 due to more people and a protein-richer diet.

Excerpt out of 33 pages


Action against the pollution of the seas by oil
How was the international regime for protecting the oceans against the pollution from oil-tankers successful?
University of Potsdam  (Lehrstuhl für intl. Organisationen)
International regimes: Theory, empirics and policy
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Action, International, Theory, oil, oil polution, MARPOL
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Michael A. Braun (Author), 2006, Action against the pollution of the seas by oil, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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