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BP spill renews debate on Turkey's straits

ISTANBUL - Bloomberg | 6/27/2010 12:00:00 AM | ERCAN ERSOY

Turkey’s geographical location is beneficial to the country’s efforts to be a energy transport hub, but it also means oil tanker traffic is increasing on the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits. With the BP tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico compounding daily, Turkish leaders have called for a meeting to address the risks facing the essential waterways

Turkey is seeking to clamp down on growing oil tanker traffic through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits from Russia and the Caspian by encouraging producers to use pipeline routes, following BP’s Gulf of Mexico spill.

Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Rosneft and BP are among 15 energy producers invited to a government meeting on July 1 to discuss possible measures needed to prevent accidents, Energy Minister Taner Yıldız said on Thursday in a telephone interview. They will be joined by representatives from Russia and Kazakhstan as well as traders, he said.

“We will emphasize in the meeting that we can’t afford any accidents in the straits, especially in Istanbul,” Yıldız said.

The straits, which divide Europe and Asia, transport 1.85 million barrels a day, equivalent to 2 percent of global oil demand, to Western markets, according to Salih Orakçı, head of Turkey’s Directorate General of Coastal Safety. Passage is governed by the Montreaux Convention drawn up in 1936, long before the era of the tankers. It allows free transit to all commercial vessels of all nations.

Although Turkey does not want to revise the convention, it is keen to draw attention to the risks posed by tankers, Yıldız said, given any accident involving hazardous cargoes threatens the lives of Istanbul’s 12 million inhabitants.

Turkey wants producers to “seek alternative routes” of reaching Western markets on a “voluntary basis,” Yıldız said. “We aren’t making oil transport difficult. We are raising the threshold for passage.”

[HH] The Samsun-Ceyhan project

Russia, Italy and Turkey agreed last year to build the $2.5 billion Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline, which will carry as much as 1.5 million barrels of oil a day from the Turkish Black Sea port of Samsun to the Mediterranean port at Ceyhan.

Rosneft, Russia’s biggest oil company, and AK Transneft signed up for the pipeline in October with Eni of Italy and Turkey’s Çalık Enerji.

Another option is the proposed 285-kilometer pipeline from Bulgaria’s Black Sea port of Burgas to Greece’s Aegean port of Alexandroupolis, Yıldız said.

“The best way to carry oil is pipelines and it is understandable that the government has called this meeting with oil companies, to which we are also invited,” Orakçı said by phone.

A total of 145 million tons of hazardous substances passed through the straits in 2009, of which 92.4 million tons were crude, he said.

Almost 300 incidents involving vessels that broke down while sailing through the Bosphorus occurred between 1988 and 2009, said Neslihan Gökdemir, head of the National Energy Forum, a think-tank based in Istanbul.

Turkey supported BP’s Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which started in 2006 and has a daily capacity of 1.2 million barrels, because it bypassed the straits.

The number of accidents on the waterways has fallen since Turkey imposed a “one-way passage at a time” rule in 2005, according to Orakçı.

A contingency fund in the event of an accident, financed by oil producers and exporters, is a possibility in the future. “But we won’t consider this at next week’s meeting,” Yıldız said.

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