Sunday, April 4, 2010

One consequence of China's coal imports - the risks of shipping

Chinese Freighter Slams Into Great Barrier Reef

The Chinese carrier Shen Neng 1 ran aground and was leaking oil around the Great Barrier Reef off of Australia.

By Keith Bradsher
Published: April 4, 2010 (The New York Times)

HONG KONG — A large Chinese freighter carrying coal to China ran aground late Saturday on a section of the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, raising fears that it might leak engine fuel on coral in its immediate vicinity.

The Shen Neng 1 crashed into the reef at full speed a few hours after leaving the port of Gladstone, the Australian authorities said. The ship, which was nine miles outside its authorized shipping lane, was hauling 72,000 tons of coal and had 1,000 tons of bunker fuel aboard.

Australian officials warned that the vessel was in danger of breaking apart, and there were reports on Sunday night of traces of oil already leaking from the vessel. An Australian aircraft reportedly dropped chemical dispersants on the oil.

Basil M. Karatzas, a project manager at Compass Maritime Services, a ship broker in Fort Lee, N.J., said that it was not unusual that the 755-foot Shen Neng 1 would be carrying that much oil. A ship of that size and design would burn about 35 tons of fuel a day, he said, and would require at least two weeks to sail from eastern Australia to China.

Ships headed to China carry extra fuel to be ready for long delays on arrival, as port delays are common because commodities are pouring into the country to sustain its economic boom. Depending on the fuel’s density, the amount carried by the Shen Neng would equate to about 300,000 gallons.

“Weather permitting, they should be able to pull the oil off the vessel,” Mr. Karatzas said. As to the ship’s cargo, he added, coal is much less toxic than oil, but it could blanket the sea bottom if the ship comes apart.

China is the world’s largest consumer of coal, burning more than the United States and the European Union combined. China has rapidly increased its imports in the past year, partly because domestic supply has not increased fast enough to keep up with power plants coming into use.

Coal imported from Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines also tends to burn much more cleanly than the mostly low-quality coal mined in China, and the Chinese government has been putting ever greater pressure on coal-fired power plants to manage their pollution.

Relations between China and Australia have frayed since a Chinese court imposed prison sentences of seven to 14 years on four executives of Rio Tinto, an Australian mining company. The executives pleaded guilty to accepting $13.5 million in bribes to influence their allocation of scarce iron ore to Chinese steelmakers.

Rio Tinto dismissed the executives, but the Australian government criticized the harshness of the seven-year sentence for bribery imposed on Stern Hu, an Australian citizen who was among the four.

Australia’s environmental movement is very sensitive to any threat to the Great Barrier Reef, making it likely that a full investigation will be carried out into how the Shen Neng 1 strayed so far off course. It ran aground near Great Keppel Island off eastern Australia, nearly halfway off the coast between Brisbane and Cairns, in an area of the reef that is subject to especially stringent environmental restrictions and that is popular with sport fishermen.

“Australia is one of those jurisdictions that doesn’t take these things lightly,” Mr. Karatzas said.

An Australian police boat was nearby to rescue the crew of 23 if the vessel did break up.

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