Why Another Prestige Is Bound to Happen Again

10/17/2012 05:11 pm ET | Updated Dec 17, 2012

Do you remember where you were 10 years ago? It feels as though no time has passed because those who handled the Prestige crisis are the same who are governing now. It seems they are handling another drifting boat.

The person who said that the Prestige, which sank more than 4,000 meters, left only small "trickles" similar to plasticine is today Spain's Prime Minister. I wonder if anyone in this country will one day come to terms with the consequences of their actions in exercising their duties in government. This is especially the case when they cause one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in history.

Ten years have gone by and the long-awaited trial begins. The truth is that a similar catastrophe can happen again at any time, because the elements that were there from the start are still there, and little has changed since then. We continue to depend on chance, on those that benefit from shipping hazardous substances. The means for fighting against pollution are mostly insufficient. The European Union banned the entry of heavy fuels into European monohull ports, but this accounts for no more than 5 percent of total petroleum products that enter Europe.

In November 2002, the Prestige tanker, a monohull built in 1976, with a declared cargo of 77,000 tons of heavy fuel oil coming from Venspils (Latvia) and bound for Gibratar, sank off the Galician coast. The oil spill affected more than 2,000 km of coastline, marking a before and after in the perception society had over the impact of oil on ecosystems, beaches, dunes, cliffs flooded by fuel, hundreds of thousands of oiled birds and decimated fishing grounds. A before and after in every day life, in the economy, in the state of the collective mood. It marked a milestone in social mobilization.

A trial cannot be postponed for 10 years, and one of the causes for this delay is the fact that a judicial procedure with the complexity and characteristics of the Prestige requires a number of human and material means, which are not provided by any courts, and which leads to a collapse in the proceedings after being overwhelmed by its shortcomings.

The huge deficiencies in international regulations cause a lack of responsibility, amongst them the routine use of flags of convenience; the use of a real framework between companies, insufficient compensation that limits the responsibility of operators, the shipper and the ship owner in case of disasters, and the amount covered by insurance companies.

Additionally, the criminal law in Spain limits cases such as this one in which responsibilities can be sorted out. Because they caused major damage, they accumulated previous proceedings from multiple companies and possible failures in regulations, there have been numerous conflicting reports, and finally, it had been many years before they could settle all of the above circumstances and reach the trial phase, making it nearly impossible for responsibilities to be sorted out.

The change in the regimen of responsibility, fundamentally based on common sense has not had any resonance with the European Union or with the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The demand for a regime with unlimited liability for accidents like the one with the Prestige remains a utopia today. In European Union countries the legal responses for the same events differ: a few weeks ago, France fined Total for being the beneficiary of oil that was brought by Erika in 1999 as it poured its 30,000 tons in the French coast. We still don't know who was the intended recipient of the fuel oil the Prestige was carrying.

The oil industry continues transporting oil unsafely -- saving money rules all decisions. No one can deny that oil has a significant environmental impact from its initial extraction until its final consumption. The impact of fossil fuels is not restricted to the local level. It continues to stubbornly elude reality: The origin of the problem after the Prestige oil spill comes from the use and abuse of fossil fuels. Today we know that the energy model has and can sustain itself and structure itself in saving and using efficient and renewable energy.

The question that many of us ask ourselves isn't whether there will be another oil spill, but when and where it will happen this time. Forgetfulness is the best ally for another oil spill that could happen again. Those responsible for the oil spill continue extracting and transporting oil. Those responsible for the accident also continue retaining political and government responsibilities. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before the possibility that another Prestige can happen again.