Guimaras oil spill: What happens now?

September 3, 2006

The Philippine Star 08/28/2006

THERE are many expensive lessons to be learned from the Guimaras oil spill. However, I am not too confident that we will learn from this tragedy. The most important lesson I see is the need to modernize our inter-island oil tanker fleet, to include upgrading qualification requirements for crew members. Our government, through MARINA, should bite the bullet and force the various vested interests to adopt internationally accepted standards.

Our domestic tanker industry has reportedly resisted the move to adopt international practices and standards. Qualification standards for the crew are also low and even at that, not strictly enforced. And the oil companies seem to be in such cozy relationship with them so as to exert enough pressure on MARINA to suspend implementation of long delayed modernization measures, like the double hull requirement. For so long now, our domestic oil tankers are like jeepneys in our urban streets… habang puedeng lumutang, puede na yan.

Admittedly, from the facts I am able to piece together, a double hull wouldn’t have saved this Guimaras ship from sinking. The problems are bad weather, a ship captain who apparently didn’t make the right decisions at crucial moments and a defective “breather” in the compartment with the 200,000 liters of fuel oil that eventually leaked. Assuming nothing is similarly wrong with the other compartments, they should normally be airtight enough to hold its cargo intact. Still, the double hull is an additional level of safety, specially if a ship runs aground. There is no doubt that the adoption of international standards for vessel and crew would save us a lot of grief.

If you talk to the owners of the tanker companies and the oil companies, they will tell you that money is the one big reason why they cannot modernize. But I doubt if it is a valid reason. From what I see, the business seems to be profitable enough for the owners. One of the big time owners was a former salesman of Petron who, in a short span of time, became stupendously rich. He is now into race horses. That makes me think the business is profitable enough to be able to afford investing in fleet modernization.

Oil industry insiders tell me that they are now talking of a 2015 deadline for local tankers to modernize and make double hulled, double bottom tankers a requirement. But the move is being strongly resisted by those in the business because that would require investment of money that now goes directly to their bottom line or profits. We should require modernization by 2008.

Modernization is definitely good for the environment and the country but bad for the cash flow of the local tanker owners. They don’t have enough sense of responsibility that would make them take the public welfare view. It is simply not right to expose the environment and the livelihood of our people to risks of tragedies such as what we now face in Guimaras.

It seems that as far as domestic tanker owners are concerned, the bottom line is all that matters. Even in a worst case scenario, as in Guimaras today, they can always point fingers at each other and on government and leave the public suffering the consequences of an oil spill. Their financial liability is also limited by their insurance coverage and because each vessel is one company, the loss of one does not endanger other vessels in the fleet.

This is why the attitude of the oil companies regarding fleet modernization is crucial. Some months ago, Petron conducted bids for their domestic tanker business. The chance for Petron to show leadership and impose internationally accepted standards was there. But Petron chose to do nothing and maintained the old “puede na” standards. In so doing, Petron took the risk of a Guimaras type disaster.

And when it happened, Petron initially took the stance that they are not responsible. And if they are helping at all, they are doing this out of the goodness of their heart. Petron eventually had to admit the mistake, as they gave the assurance they “are committed to stay and help in the province as long as necessary.” Ganoon naman pala, why the legalistic stance in the first place?

This is the unfortunate thing with Petron management’s stance. Nick Alcantara and the Saudi Arabian president should have taken basic lessons in handling disasters of this nature. I mentioned some examples of excellent crisis management by various companies here and abroad. I forgot to mention the example of the young Lance Gokongwei, who experienced that tragic crash of Cebu Pacific in Cagayan de Oro shortly after he assumed his top position in the airline.

Young as he was, Lance had the right instincts. He accepted responsibility and assured all concerned that Cebu Pacific will do what it should to help and indemnify the victims. That saved the young brand as well, enabling it to be aggressively competitive today. People understand that accidents happen… no one wants them… but when these accidents happen, there must be someone responsible who must help those adversely affected by it… someone who knows the right things to do.

Nick and his Arab co-manager at Petron must realize Guimaras is not just a legal case. By the public nature of Petron and the public nature of the consequences of the accident, Petron must win its case first before the Court of Public Opinion. They are seriously losing that battle now through default. First, they were saying nothing much, even hiding from media. And when they spoke up, they took the ridiculous stance of emphasizing their lack of legal liability.

Nick’s problem now is that even if Ate Glue wants to help him extricate himself and Petron out of the gooey mess of Guimaras, public opinion will restrain Ate Glue from doing so. And things could go worse because the public is already predisposed to hate the oil companies due to all the price increases. It would be easy for some of those environmentalists to launch signature campaigns to punish Petron in the commercial market. I just got one such “boycott Petron” text message as I was editing this column.

Even as we clean the beaches and waters of Guimaras, compensate the resort owners and provide alternative livelihood to affected fishermen and other residents, government must move forward in the modernization of our domestic tanker fleet. Let us not accept the excuse that we don’t have the money for it. Judging by the lifestyle of the owners of the domestic tankers, it is obvious they can raise the money for it.

If not, let us open the domestic service to foreign vessels. We cannot compromise the safety of our people and our natural resources. We must push hard for this modernization, long after Guimaras departs from the headlines.

(Only cached page available on the web.)


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