Bay rides wave of ship refuelling boom
But oil spill risks cloud potential economic benefits
The rich spoils of a mushrooming ship-to-ship refuelling industry in Algoa Bay are being tempered by warnings of the increased threat of a catastrophic oil spill.
At the centre of the weigh-up between the potentially enormous economic dividends of the offshore transfer of oil and fuel and the risk to other ocean-based industries like fisheries and tourism is that the bay’s capacity for such operations is unknown and needs to be urgently assessed.
“We need a cost-benefit analysis to understand what the benefits are for the people of Port Elizabeth and weigh them up against these risks,” Bayworld marine biologist Dr Greg Hofmeyr said.
He is among conservationists and marine scientists who expressed their concerns following a recent Know Your Bay event at Bayworld, where the South African Maritime Safety Authority delivered a presentation on the offshore refuelling process known as bunkering.
But the maritime safety authority, on the other hand, has pointed to diverse economic benefits and said while it was aware of the dangers of offshore bunkering, applicant companies underwent a strict auditing process.
Hofmeyr said with two bunkering companies already engaged in ship-to-ship transfer of fuel and oil in Algoa Bay, ship volumes increasing and more applications being considered, the matter demanded swift attention.
While the bunkering had generated levies and boosted business for chandlers, few other jobs appeared to have been created and further benefits were not apparent.
“By contrast, the risks are huge for oil spills and a consequent negative impact on our biodiversity, industries like fisheries and tourism, and our way of life.
“We are an outdoor city.” Captain Neville Noble, principal officer at the maritime safety authority’s Port Elizabeth branch, said the city was in a prime position on a busy shipping route and bunkering was an opportunity for ships to improve their cargo capacity.
“It means they can be topped up with fuel rather than having to fill up at their load port and reduce cargo to stay beneath the maximum allowable dead weight.”
The maritime safety authority had allowed bunkering in Algoa Bay and nowhere else on the SA coast because it was particularly well-sheltered, and it had so far granted operating permission to two companies – Aegean and South African Marine Fuels, Noble said.
One mother ship carrying the fuel load was anchored permanently in the bay and the second intermittently.
Four barges to transport fuel from mother ships to receiving vessels were in operation and a fifth was being vetted.
Noble said bunkering was economically beneficial due to the business it created for ship chandlers and the levies paid to the maritime safety authority and the Transnet National Ports Authority.
He confirmed that one oil spill had occurred shortly after the first company, Aegean, had begun operations underpinned by the government’s Operation Phakisa bid to fast-track ocean development projects.
The August 14 2016 spill resulted from a transfer between an Aegean barge and the Energy Challenger, and only involved 200 litres.
“Vessels have to comply with high safety standards which are more stringent here than the international norm,” Noble said.
“Clean-up agreements that can be activated at the drop of a hat must be put in place.
“Bunkering is a controlled operation and if something goes wrong it can be stopped.”
However, he said public participation and comprehensive social, environmental and economic scrutiny as contained in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process did not play a role with bunkering applications.
“The projects are referred to the department of environmental affairs, which deals with this process, but bunkering is not at present a listed activity that would trigger the need for an EIA.”
Since the industry was opened in Algoa Bay, more than 40 bunkering company applications had been received, with only two approved and one in the final auditing stage.
Noble admitted that no carrying capacity study to identify how much each operator was allowed to expand or how many different bunkering companies were allowed to operate in the bay had been done.
Asked if this was not dangerous and unsustainable, he said such a study was planned.
“Until it is done, this issue will be a consideration for the approval of further applicants.”
According to Aegean regional manager Kosta Argyros, profits from bunkering go to the fuel suppliers, which range from Sasol in SA to companies in Russia and the Americas.
The suppliers pay the bunkering companies to store and deliver their fuel.
The new industry in Algoa Bay had created a marine services hub to provide stores, water, and medical and dental care and for crew changes and shore visits which, in turn, linked to a demand for hospitality and flights, Argyros said.
Association of Commonwealth Universities scientist Steve Allen said another driver for the bunkering in Algoa Bay was the threat of piracy in the Suez Canal.
“It’s an ongoing problem and it means that major shipping companies are routing their vessels around the Cape, so it makes sense for them to pop into Algoa Bay if they can.”
Allen, who has worked in the offshore oil exploration industry in the Caspian Sea, said he had seen how spills could happen in an instant.
“You have already had one in Algoa Bay due to human error and you multiply the risk every time you bring in another operator,” he said.
Hofmeyr’s call for a costbenefit analysis was supported by the Wildlife Society and Algoa Bay Hope Spot forum, which together host the Know Your Bay functions.
Nelson Mandela University marine biologist and African penguin specialist Dr Lorien Pichegru, who co-ordinates the forum and sits on the society’s committee, said such a study was critically important.
“It seems the risks are far higher than the benefits to either Bay residents or the municipality,” she said.
“The jobs and taxes generated are tiny compared to what we could pay for oil spills in terms of the negative impact on biological diversity and the healthy functioning of our bay, scientific interest, recreation space, tourism, fisheries, salt works and quality of life.”
She said spills could be fatal to marine species because of their smothering effect, destruction of insulation and toxicity when ingested.
Some species drowned when they grew drowsy after inhaling fumes and others were affected by loss of breeding potential.
Algoa Bay was home to the largest colony of critically endangered African penguins on St Croix Island and more than half the surviving 60,000 birds – 2% of what the numbers were a century ago, she said.
“Launching bunkering here for this reason alone makes no sense and we could lose the species as a result.”
The department of environmental affairs failed to respond to questions sent on Tuesday.
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