Image of Shipping Tarnished in California Oil Spill

The traditional bane of shipping, and headline grabbing image-smasher, had traditionally been oil spills, going back all the way to 1967 when the Torrey Canyon went up on the rocks in the U.K. There have been some other egregious spills, most notably the Exxon Valdez debacle in 1989. Now, in early October 2021, we have another spill ruining the beaches in southern California. I’ve been through there, and (of course) hung out around the waterfront. It’s a beautiful spot; places like Catalina Island and the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Dana Point area are must sees for any nautically minded tourist and/ or business-person visiting the area (after San Pedro, and Parkers’ Lighthouse-in Long Beach, of course). Unfortunately, these places are adjacent to where many of the big ships are waiting.

The problem (and I don’t mean to minimize the oil spill part of this) is that the spill is now being linked, possibly (I am not the spill police,  words like “maybe” and  “allegedly” loom large), to a commercial ship that might have whacked the underwater pipeline, and then dragged it, with its anchor. The drift area where ships anchor, after assigned positions are all filled (which has been the case for a while with the overpopulated anchorage) is adjacent to the aforementioned beautiful tourist spots.

Since every news outlet on the planet has been running pictures of the 70+ vessels anchored at San Pedro Bay, waiting to get into Los Angeles or Long Beach, and the spill was first spotted 5 miles approximately from the anchorage area, the anchor dragging theory makes sense, at least circumstantially. Then comes word that the Coast Guard was forensically back-casting vessel positions using AIS (automatic identification system, required on all deepsea ships- which pings out position and other data) and actually had a particular containership in mind. Couple that with alleged delays in reporting of “alarm readings” from a system designed to detect pipeline leaks, and with making required notifications to responders, then you have a real kerfuffle (I am being polite, the editors here would not print the words I would rather use to describe this situation).

So, like many of the readers, I am sensitive to how shipping is perceived by outsiders, as we get within a few weeks of the big climate meetings in Glasgow. If it emerges that a vessel’s anchor was indeed the culprit here, this would be very bad for the “image of shipping”- a popular topic these days with supply chain disasters (six months since we said “Never Ever” again) all over the mainstream news. If a commercial vessel is indeed at fault, it would be an unfortunate accident. Usually I have ideas for instant (albeit impractical or downright impossible to implement) solutions to complicated problems.  But in this case, what to do to prevent such happenings in the future? Some folks want to shut down all the offshore oil wells; that’s not a viable idea ever but certainly not in this time of $80/bbl crude. Or you could solve the vessel backup by working 24 hours shifts at the container terminals; the professionals who run the ports (and know far more than me on such matters) don’t think that’s a good idea, either.

For folks in the data synthesizing business, there are marvelous opportunities here. Consider that some of the shipping tracking providers have incorporated digital “ring-fencing” into their offerings- for example, alarms would be activated, and regulators called, if fishing boats which stray from zones where they are allowed to be working. I would expect that some of those data scientists out there would have found digital maps of pipelines (for example, from: https://pvnpms.phmsa.dot.gov/PublicViewer/) and begun superimposing AIS feeds. If a vessel strays too close, the alarm bells should start ringing. Too bad that they did not have this hooked up last week when the alleged anchor strike may have occurred.