Oily risks of Gulf of Finland
World lives on oil. This is especially the case with Russia, where, in 2012, oil- and gas sector accounted for 16% of GPD and more than 70% of exports. For Russia, Gulf of Finland (GoF) is an important route of export, being peaceful option compared to southern options. Every day 20 tankers pass the Gulf of Finland, which is a narrow area with intensive traffic. The existing risk analyses suggest that large oil spills are matter of time.
For Finland, the development of Russian oil transportation created a risk that cannot be controlled. Finland needs to adapt to the risk. This is demanding as building a lot of human activities to a small area has created unforeseen risks. There are three nuclear power plants in the GoF, and after a ship accident the leaking oil can spread to cooling system, which can create severe problems. Especially such oil, which spreads below the surface, is impossible to keep outside the cooling system with oil booms. After discussions with FEM research group in University of Helsinki, STUK (Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority) realized that this risk needs to be taken into account, and the nuclear power plant in Loviisa got a new construction to be able to take cooling water from the eastern side for periods of maintenance service, which are critical periods. FEM realized the risk when assessing what would happen for the bird islands if oil passes underneath the booms.
Compared to any other Baltic Sea country, Finland has invested a lot in oil combatting fleet. In GoF, the usual directions of wind are such that in an oil spill accident, the likely direction of the spreading oil is along Finnish coast. Moreover, the coastline is long and ragged with a lot of islands and bays, providing a variety of habitats for species. On the other hand, GoF is a difficult environment for the cleaning of shoreline.
It is challenging to estimate in advance, how big the ecological damages could be in different sizes of accidents. The environmental settings (wind strength and direction, ice conditions, etc.) vary a lot and they have an important effect on the impacts of oil accidents. For example the damages on sea birds are to some extent unpredictable: in France in 1978 the oil leakage from Amoco Cadiz -tanker was 230 000 tons, but the total number of dead birds was “only” 20 000. On the other hand, a relatively small oil leakage (10 tons) from a small vessels close to Gotland waters in Baltic Sea killed 60 000 birds.
The commercial values of e.g. Finnish species in GoF are low compared to the value of oil business. The value of the load of one tanker is easily tens of millions of euros. This is much more than the value of e.g. yearly herring catches in GoF. However, the costs of cleaning can be up to billion dollars. The Finnish citizens have a high willingness to pay for prevention of an oil accident. In a case of a large accident, insurance companies, Finnish Oil Pollution Compensation Fund and International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds do not cover all the costs. The taxpayers will pay the rest, i.e. we carry the risk of Russian oil export.
Due to the only partial possibility to directly control the risk, there is an obvious need to use scientific tools to create a maximum interest among shipping companies and insurance companies to avoid oil accidents. For example, the returning of a lost species back to GoF can be very costly. All such costs must be estimated in advance to make actors realizing what the total costs and biological damages can be.
The negative publicity seems to be the most important factor creating the interest to avoid accidents among the involved companies. However, this is likely the case with large international oil companies, and not necessarily with small shipping companies, which do not have similar PR value. In the oil damage databases (which species have a risk to be lost in a case of a spill) of Gulf of Finland there are also photos of the species to make it concrete what the potentially lost species look like. In order to estimate population losses, these databases are used together with spatially specific accident probabilities and models that describe the spread of oil in different weather settings.
The main part of the nature conservation in Finland is focusing on the safeguarding of rare and threatened species. In their genes, they have such information which is easily not possible to get back if once lost. There is no similar environment in the world as the brackish water of Baltic Sea is. In GoF, there are about 70 species, which live in such a microhabitat that oil spill can destroy many of the populations. There is a risk to loose permanently some genetically unique species in an accident, whereas e.g. rainbow trouts in aquaculture are easy to replace. Moreover, the insurance companies pay these damages.
International Maritime Organization has declared Baltic Sea to be particularly sensitive sea area (PSSA), except the Russian area. This demonstrates that the uniqueness of the nature of the area has been acknowledged. In GoF, several investments to safety have been made. These include: 1) International AIS (Automatic Identification System) system, which identifies the name of the vessel, type of the vessel and place and direction 2) VTS (Vessel Traffic Service) authority offers, for vessels, information about traffic of the area and other relevant information having impact on safety 3) International Mandatory Ship Reporting System that provides additional information about vessels entering GoF. As can be seen, quite a lot has been done, but if we compare the standards to those of aviation, it is obvious that a lot more could still be done. For example the learning from close by accidents is very poor in shipping.
Even though GoF is a well studied area where approximately 20 scientific papers have been published about oil spill risks and decision making, there is still a hard decision to be made: do we safeguard an aquaculture unit, beaches or beetles? Such decisions are difficult for those persons who are in charge of oil combatting activities after an accident and oil spill. It would be better to include the aims of decision making to legislation. Agreed aims and criteria would allow decision analysis to support the demanding decision making after a large scale oil spill.
Professor in Fisheries Biology
Kotka Maritime Research Centre
University of Helsinki
Expert article published in Baltic Rim Economies 31.10.2016