US, UK, others seek to target illicit oil shipping transfers at sea

FILE PHOTO: Oil tanker which the Libyan navy said was seized while attempting to smuggle oil, is seen off the coast of Tripoli

LONDON (Reuters) - The U.S., UK, Denmark and other countries have called for more action, including increased surveillance, over the booming practice of unregulated oil transfers at sea, as fears grow over potential pollution, according to a paper submitted to the U.N.

"These transfers undermine the rules-based international order and increase the risk of pollution to nearby coastal States. This threatens global efforts to prevent pollution from ships," the paper said.

The paper was submitted to United Nations shipping agency, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), by the member states ahead of a major marine environment protection committee session in July. It was also backed by Australia, Canada, Spain and Ukraine.

Hundreds of "ghost" tankers, which are not fully regulated, have joined this opaque parallel trade over the past few years, carrying oil from countries hit by Western sanctions and restrictions, including Russia and Iran.

The number of incidents last year, including groundings, collisions and near misses involving these ships reached the highest in years, a Reuters investigation showed.

"These risky practices, although under the jurisdiction of a flag state, unjustly expose national and local governments and authorities to paying for response and clean-up costs and compensating victims," the paper said.

Tactics used by such ships include switching off tracking transponders, faking locations and also conducting ship-to-ship (STS) operations at locations outside of authorised transfer zones and sometimes in poor weather to conceal activities.

The paper, which will be discussed at the IMO session, said deceptive shipping practices were also "serious threats to the safety and security of international shipping", including crew members.

The countries recommended that when flag states became aware of such practices they should step up inspections of those vessels and boost monitoring of activity including around territorial waters.

Ship insurer West said in a recent advisory that it would agree to cover STS operations by ships subject to certain provisions, including "no geographical deviation". It also said transfers need to take place in good weather, in a dedicated STS transfer area and under the supervision of a qualified mooring specialist.

(Reporting by Jonathan Saul; Editing by Sharon Singleton)