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Davis, California

Monday, February 26, 2024

The Sanchi oil tanker collision serves as a sad reminder of the dangers of oil dependence

The sooner we move toward alternative energy solutions and away from crude oil, the better

Whenever I see the words “oil tanker” in a headline, I imagine the worst.

I remember grisly pictures of oil-covered birds from the 2010 Gulf oil spill. (Refrain from performing a Google image search and spare yourself the guilt of being a human being.)

The Gulf oil spill is still classified as the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Over three million barrels of oil were released into the ocean. It cost 11 human lives and affected even more non-human lives: birds, fish, turtles and dolphins.

Researchers are still trying to determine how the oil spill affects their lives — and ours — today.

The recent Sanchi oil tanker collision is no less a tragedy. A human tragedy. An environmental tragedy.

The tanker collided with a cargo ship near the Yangtze River Delta on the evening of Jan. 6, and since then rescuers have fought through black clouds of toxic gas to try to save 31 crew members who remain missing.

The tanker contains 1 billion barrels of condensate, an ultralight version of crude oil — which happens to be highly toxic and flammable. The tanker partially exploded on Jan. 10.

The tanker continues to burn, and no one can do anything about it. But if the tanker sinks, it could mean even more tragedy. It would be the 10th largest oil spill in history.

“It’s not like crude, which does break down under natural microbial action,” said Simon Boxall, an oceanographer with the National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton. “This stuff actually kills the microbes that break the oil down […] If [the tanker] sinks with a lot of cargo intact, then you have a time bomb on the seabed which will slowly release the condensate.”

“The environmental impact of this disaster could be catastrophic,” said Dave Tickner, a freshwater adviser at the World Wide Fund for Nature. “The consequences will be far more severe if it affects a wide area of ocean or the Yangtze estuary, which is hugely important for wildlife, including significant numbers of migratory birds and a range of fish species.”

But another threat comes from the ship’s fuel, which could be up to 5,000 tons of bunker fuel, not including its cargo.

“The problem is the ship’s heavy bunker fuel,” said Chauncey Naylor, the director of emergency response and training at Tyco Corp’s oil-fire specialists Williams Fire & Hazard Control. “It burns real slow, and it’s heavy and will lay on the ocean and on any twisted metal and create heavy smoke. It’s the stuff that spills and gets on birds.”

The tanker reminds us of the risks we take when we extract and transport oil, which is especially relevant considering the United States’ recent decision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. If a similar accident occurred along Alaska’s coast, it could be devastating for the area’s wildlife — including birds, fish, caribou and the already-threatened polar bears.

It’s hard to imagine a world where these types of accidents don’t occur. But the moment we stop imagining that world, it becomes an impossibility.

Ottawa, Canada introduced a ban on oil tankers along the British Columbia coast in 2017. The Oil Tanker Moratorium Act bars oil tankers from operating along the coast from Vancouver to Alaska. The ban represents a victory in the struggle against crude oil dependence, proving that people still care enough to protect vulnerable animals, places and people.

I’m not suggesting that the U.S. can quit crude oil overnight. Unfortunately, my life is powered by crude oil, too.

I’m not suggesting that the U.S. rethink crude oil dependence, either. We’re past that.

We need to implement more alternative energy sources, like wind and solar, and move away from oil. It’s better for the environment, and it’s better for people.


Written by: Jess Driver — jmdriver@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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