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Tanker Ship: The Ultimate Guide to Liquid Cargo Transportation

In response to the increased effectiveness of Iranian attacks in 1987, Kuwait drew the United States into the region to protect oil tanker traffic. The U.S. reflagged Kuwaiti tankers, making them U.S. ships eligible for U.S. Navy escort, and provided security of shipping to and from neutral Gulf countries.[vi]


The Iran-Iraq War, which began in September 1980, now ranks as one of the longer interstate conflicts of the 20th century. In a strict military sense, it has been primarily a land conflict. Compared with the often bloody fighting on land, where an uneasy stalemate has developed, the "tanker war" in the waters of the Gulf has been a mere sideshow . The tanker war, however, has attracted considerable international interest because it has involved the shipping of many countries. It is seen as having the potential both to affect world oil exports and prices, and to draw other countries into the conflict.

Iran trapped or destroyed many Iraqi ships in port in the early stages of the war. But Iraq started the tanker war in the Gulf proper in 1981 by initiating attacks on ships steaming to or from Iranian ports at the extreme northern end of the Gulf. Iraq continued these attacks into 1984 without a parallel Iranian response at sea. In March of that year, however, Iraq increased the rate of its attacks and expanded their geographic scope by attacking ships serving more southerly Iranian points, particularly the oil-loading complex at Kharg Island. Two months later, Iran initiated its own attacks, and the tanker war became a two-way affair.

Table 1 provides the most widely published counting in the United States of the number of ship attacks by each belligerent. On a cumulative basis, Iraq has accounted for about three-fifths of the attacks. In 1987, however, Iran drew roughly even with Iraq in the number of ships attacked for the first time in the tanker war.

Table 3 shows the United Nations data by type of ship attacked. More than three-quarters of the ships attacked have indeed been tankers or product carriers of one kind or another. Non-petroleum cargo ships, however, came under much more frequent attack in 1987.

Table 5 shows the United Nations data on number of people killed, wounded, and missing as a result of the tanker war. Some countings of the total number killed are two or three times as high as the figure in Table 5. Iranian speed boat attackers in 1987 reportedly perfected the art of concentrating their fire on the crew compartments of their target ships. The effect of this tactic on total casualties, however, is hard to assess. The 1987 casualty data in Table 5, though incomplete, do not reflect a marked jump in the number of killed, wounded, and missing per attack.

By the end of the year, comparisons were being made between the tonnage of shipping attacked in the tanker war and the tonnage of merchant shipping sunk in World War II. By one counting, more than 30 million tons of shipping had been damaged in the Gulf from 1981 through the latter part of 1987. The United Nations listed six ships as sunk in 1987, compared with two in 1986, none in 1985, and three in 1984. Another three dozen or more have been declared total losses. As mentioned above, attacks in 1987 led to scores of casualties. They also prompted a further increase in shipping insurance rates.

These facts notwithstanding, the tanker war in general has yet to significantly curtail Gulf oil exports or substantially increase world oil prices. In part, this reflects both a greater reliance by the Gulf Arab states on overland pipelines, and an ample supply of oil from non-Gulf sources on the world market. It also reflects the fact, however, that only a small portion of Gulf shipping is coming under attack. Thousands of ships transit the Strait of Hormuz each year, and scores can be found in the Gulf's waters on a given day. Somewhere between I % and 2% of these are deemed to have come under attack. Figures for the total tonnage of damaged shipping can be misleading, because many of the attacks have inflicted relatively minor (or at least repairable) damage on large tankers with six-digit displacements.

The Reagan administration worked out the basic details of the plan to escort the reflagged tankers in talks with Kuwait in the early months of 1987. The administration informed Congress and then the public about the operation in the latter part of March, and initiated the first convoy on 21-22 July. By the end of the year, 23 escorted transits involving a total of 56 ships were reported to have been completed. The above-normal cost of U. S. operations in and around the Gulf (which include, but are not limited to, the escorting of the reflagged Kuwaiti tankers) was estimated at $69 million for fiscal year 1987, and $10 million to $15 million per month in fiscal year 1988.

U. S.-owned, Liberian-flagged tanker Sungari, at anchor nine miles off Kuwait's Mina al-Ahmadi terminal, hit and damaged by Silkworm missile fired by Iran from, Fao Peninsula. No casualties but ship damaged.

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Reflagged Kuwaiti tanker Sea Isle City, about ten miles off Mina al-Ahmadi, hit and damaged by Silkworm missile fired by Iran from Fao Peninsula. Eighteen injured, including the U. S. master, and ship damaged.

Helicopters from the USS Chandler (DDG-996) evacuates 11 people from the Cypriot-registered tanker Patriot after the tanker was attacked by Iranian speedboats. A helicopter charted by CBS News evacuates another 29.

Historically, tanker rates increase when petroleum demand is low because tankers begin to be used as flexible, floating storage. In April 2020, an oversupply of crude oil and refined petroleum products, resulting from decreased demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, drove both clean and dirty tanker rates to record highs. Dirty tankers mostly carry crude oil, but they can also haul high-sulfur petroleum products such as residual fuel oil.

Clean petroleum products are typically transported on medium range (MR) tankers, which are generally smaller than dirty tankers. MR clean tanker rates rose above the previous record highs in April 2020 and remained elevated as of November 2022. Since February 2022, clean tanker rates have increased for ships operating in ports closely associated with Russia and Europe because of geopolitical uncertainty and high-risk insurance premiums. As tanker rates have increased, European countries have begun purchasing distillate from countries further away from Russia, and the longer voyage time has added to the cost of chartering a vessel, which has also increased the cost of shipping petroleum products.

Dirty tanker rates for voyages originating in Russian seaports on the Baltic Sea (Primorsk) and the Black Sea (Novorossiysk) also increased significantly in the first four months of 2022. However, from April 2022 to November 2022, rates from Primorsk decreased by about 46% and from Novorossiysk by about 4%. Despite these decreases, rates were more than double in November than what they were in February.

That date is the deadline which the landmark Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA-90) specifies for phasing out single-hull tankers in U.S. waters. That act, passed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, required that all new tankers and tank-barges be built with double hulls.

Recently constructed single-hull tankers were allowed to operate, but 25 years after the Exxon Valdez, those vessels are now at the end of their operational life and will no longer be able to carry oil as cargo. The requirement was phased in gradually because of the difficultly of converting existing single-hull tankers to double hulls, and retiring the single-hull tankers more rapidly would have been a major disruption to world shipping.

There won't be a dramatic change-over on New Year's Eve; most of the tankers calling on U.S. ports have had double hulls years before this deadline. However, one ship which was not switched over to a double hull soon enough was the tanker Athos I. This ship, carrying 13.6 million gallons of heavy crude oil, struck a submerged anchor in the Delaware River and caused a relatively large, complicated oil spill near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 10 year ago.

In 1992, two years after the Oil Pollution Act, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (the MARPOL Convention) was amended to require all newly built tankers have double hulls. MARPOL has been ratified by 150 countries, representing over 99 percent of merchant tonnage shipped worldwide.

While we measure oil in barrels, it is not actually shipped that way. Instead, oil is pumped into huge tanks that are part of the structure of tankers and barges. For vessels with a single hull, one plate of steel is all that separates the oil on board from the ocean. If the hull were punctured from a collision or grounding, an oil spill is pretty much guaranteed to follow. On the other hand, a ship with a double hull has two plates of steel with empty space in between them. The second hull creates a buffer zone between the ocean and the cargo of oil.

However, the double hull requirements only apply to tankers and tank barges. Container ships, freighters, cruise ships, and other types of vessels are still built with single hulls. While these ships carry a lot less oil than a tanker, a large non-tank vessel can still carry a lot of fuel oil, and some have caused some pretty big spills, including the 2007 oil spill caused by the cargo ship Cosco Busan in San Francisco Bay.

Of course, double hulls don't prevent all oil spills from tankers either, but the design has been credited with reducing the amount spilled, especially in the cases of low-speed groundings and collisions.

Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla collided with a submerged oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The collision tore a huge hole in the side of the oil tanker, but, thankfully, none of the 41 million gallons of crude oil it had on board was spilled.

E-ONE custom tankers offer the versatility of high volume pumps and large tank capacities, and the dependability of an exceptionally durable custom chassis. A variety of tanks and pump sizes are available.


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