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International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation


(OPRC 1990)


Parties to the OPRC convention are required to establish measures for dealing with pollution incidents, either nationally or in co-operation with other countries.

In July 1989, a conference of leading industrial nations in Paris called upon IMO to develop further measures to prevent pollution from ships. This call was endorsed by the IMO Assembly in November of the same year and work began on a draft convention aimed at providing a global framework for international co-operation in combating major incidents or threats of marine pollution.

Parties to the OPRC convention are required to establish measures for dealing with pollution incidents, either nationally or in co-operation with other countries.

Ships are required to carry a shipboard oil pollution emergency plan, the to be developed by IMO. Operators of offshore units under the jurisdiction of Parties are also required to have oil pollution emergency plans or similar arrangements which must be co-ordinated with national systems for responding promptly and effectively to oil pollution incidents.

Ships are required to report incidents of pollution to coastal authorities and the convention details the actions that are then to be taken. The convention calls for the establishment of stockpiles of oil spill combating equipment, the holding of oil spill combating exercises and the development of detailed plans for dealing with pollution incidents.

Parties to the convention are required to provide assistance to others in the event of a pollution emergency and provision is made for the reimbursement of any assistance provided.

The Convention provides for IMO to play an important co-ordinating role.

 Regional centres

IMO, in co-operation with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has established a centre in Malta to co-ordinate anti-pollution activities in the Mediterranean (REMPEC)

The Regional Marine Pollution Emergency, Information and Training Center for the Wider Caribbean Region (REMPEITC-Carib) is an IMOoffice which assists the countries in the region in preventing, preparing for and responding to major pollution incidents. 

IMO also participates in the GEF/UNDP/IMO Regional Programme on Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia  (PEMSEA).

R&D Forum

Article 8 of the OPRC Convention calls on governments and IMO to play an active role in the promotion of R&D relating to the enhancement of the state-of-the-art of pollution preparedness and response through the exchange of information.

The first and second International R&D Fora on oil spill response issues were held in McLean (USA, 1992) and London (1995). The third was held in Brest, France, in 2002 - Third R&D Forum on High Density Oil Spill Response.

Oil spill experts address high-quality density oil spills

Leading world experts in oil spill response have agreed a series of recommendations to deal with future spills of high density oil during the International Maritime Organization’s Third R&D Forum on High Density Oil Spill Response, held from 11-13 March in Brest, France, following the generous offer of the French Government to host the Forum.

Large quantities of high density oil are carried by ships either as cargo or as fuel (bunkers).  This oil’s characteristics, including high viscosity and tendency to sink, present particular challenges for clean-up operations in the event of an accidental spill at sea.  The recommendations adopted by the Forum include the development and testing of new systems for detection and treatment of high density oil spills and the sharing of technical expertise between IMO, Governments and industry (to include oil producers, importers and exporters, and those involved in oil spill response).

Although the safety standards of ships continue to improve and accident rates are falling, accidents such as those involving ships like the Nakhodka in Japan, the Erika off the coast of Brittany and more recently the Baltic Carrier in the Baltic Sea confirmed the urgent need for further development and dissemination of techniques to enable coastal States to respond rapidly and effectively to spills of high density oils.  In addition to technological development, the Forum also focused on the operational aspects of combating oil pollution, including training and the effective use of equipment. 

Recent years have seen a number of significant developments in this field and, in accordance with the 1990 International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation (OPRC), Governments and IMO are playing an active role both by promoting R&D and exchanging information.

Recommendations adopted by the R&D Forum included:

Detection of high density oil spills


IMO, Governments and industry to co-operate internationally in the development of laser and sonar technology for detecting high density oil spills.


Governments and industry to validate use of sensors in practice (during actual oil spills).


Governments and industry to facilitate the testing of prototype systems (systems in development) on actual oil spills.

Modelling of high density oil spills


Governments to facilitate the validation of modelling systems (such as computerised systems to predict the drifting oil slicks) during actual oil spills.


Coastal States should encourage oil spill responders to co-operate with modellers.


IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) should use the OPRC Convention as the basic framework to facilitate these recommendations.

Behaviour and fate of high density oil spills


IMO, Governments and industry to ensure better dissemination of  practical knowledge and experience of the behaviour and fate of high density oils,  through an international guidance document.


Much research has been done on emulsified fuel oil, but IMO and Governments need to ensure much wider and better dissemination of the information.


IMO and the International Standardisation Organization (ISO)  to develop internationally recognized definitions for the terms overwashing, submergence and sinking.


Studies on features of overwashing, submergence and sinking are preliminary and need to be confirmed  - and based on this work, simple tools/guides need to be developed.


There is a need for focussed testing to confirm predictions, from which guidelines could be developed for oil spill responders.


Current research on dispersant effectiveness needs to focus on determining limits and this information needs to be disseminated to  promote proper use.


Further research is needed on the variability of different high density oils and their properties - reference should be made to existing knowledge and IMO, Governments and industry need to collate more and comprehensive information on high density oils. A range of tests to assess high density oil properties already exist -  but  further work is needed to validate the tests.

Containment and recovery of floating high density oil


IMO, Governments and industry to improve international co-operation in developing and testing operational high density oil collection and pumping systems.


IMO, Governments and industry to consider sharing test facilities and to facilitate joint field trials of complete recovery systems.


IMO and the ISO to develop equipment testing parameters, such as standard viscosity and temperature ranges, to accelerate R&D collaboration.


IMO and ISO to develop guidelines for evaluating recovery system performance to assist in proper selection and use in oil spills.


IMO to facilitate the better sharing of scientific and technical information during spills and with post-incident reports.


Regions should evaluate the risks and benefits of response options and consequences.


Governments and industry to ensure that risk/benefit evaluations include environmental, economic, and social considerations.

Recovery of sunken high density oil


Industry and Governments to develop deep water automotive systems and wreck detection at depths greater than 2,000 metres.


Governments to establish an inter-Governmental initiative to investigate the threat of elderly wrecks in coastal waters.


Industry to develop survey sonar sensors for locating presence of oil through metal/tanks; to make use of advances in digital video imaging and to look at ways of measuring quantities of oil remaining in wrecks.


Industry to develop alternative methods to steam heating to achieve a viable flow rate in order to be able to pump oil from greater depths.


Industry to develop safety equipment complementary to the development of new recovery technologies.

The recommendations from the R&D Forum will be submitted to the MEPC at its 48th session in October 2002 for consideration and action by IMO Member States.

Funding for the R&D Forum, which had a total budget of more than US$200,000, came from a number of government and industry sources, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the USA, the European Commission as well as the Nippon Foundation of Japan.  Industry sources include the Independent Tanker Owners’ Pollution Federation (ITOPF), the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association (IPIECA), the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST) and the oil company BP. 

The R&D Forum was attended by some 300 delegates from 70 countries.  The delegates included 35 participants from developing countries sponsored by IMO’s Technical Co-operation Programme and other sources.  The R&D Forum was chaired by Mr. Tom Allan of the United Kingdom, chairman of IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee.

A further 200 delegates attended a programme of events, held alongside the R&D Forum, dedicated to maritime safety and the protection of the marine environment, organized by the Brest Urban Community, in co-operation with IMO, the European Commission and the following organizations:  CEDRE (Centre de Documentation de Recherche et d’Expérimentation sur les pollutions accidentelles des eaux/Centre for Research into Accidental Pollution of the Seas), SYCOPOL (French Oil Spill Control Association), BOSCA (British Oil Spill Control Association), and NOSCA (Norwegian Oil Spill Control Association).

High density oil

High density oils include around 600 million tonnes of residual fuel produced and consumed in the world each year, used mostly for power generation.  High density fuel oils are produced from residues from various refinery processes and are also known as heavy fuel oils.  Some 140 million tonnes of marine bunker fuel oils are consumed annually, the majority of which is heavy fuel oil.  A large ship powered by diesel engines may consume 150 tonnes of fuel oil per day and may carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 tonnes of this oil as fuel.  Heavy fuel oil tends to be cheaper than distillate (lighter) fuel oils.

The characteristics of heavy fuel oil when spilled at sea – such as occurred during the Erika and Baltic Carrier incidents – have implications for response and clean-up operations.  These characteristics include:


High viscosity (relates to ability to be poured) – implications for pumping.  Viscosity of any oil decreases as temperature is raised – heavy fuel oil may need to be heated to be pumped.  Viscosity is more pronounced in cold waters and winter months.


May be solid or semi-solid at typical sea temperatures – this can have advantages if it is possible to scoop up quantities of oil in calm seas.  Similarly, removal of heavy fuel oil from beaches with hard-packed sand is normally straightforward.  Penetration into sandy beaches is likely to be minimal – but care must be taken if mechanical diggers are used so as not to mix oil with sand.


Highly viscous oil tends to attach itself firmly to hard surfaces, making clean-up difficult on rocky shores.  However, when the oil has emulsified with water it may not adhere so readily.


Heavy fuel oils tend to be less toxic than crude oils and some other refined products – but strong adhesive properties and persistence may have greater impact on mammals and seabirds.


Spilled oil is heavy (high specific gravity) – tends to float low in the water – this can make recovery using skimmers difficult (whereas skimmers may be more effective for “lighter” oils).


It may be hard to assess where the oil is from the air because the oil is not floating on the surface – when oil is visible on surface, it may not be possible to assess thickness of oil patches and therefore quantity of oil spilled. 


Movement of heavy fuel oil may be difficult to predict as wave action may  carry it below the surface.


Sunken heavy fuel oil may have significant impact on seabed resources and fishing and mariculture activities.


Persistent – heavy fuel oils do not disperse naturally in a significant manner and oil spill dispersants may prove ineffective.


Spilled heavy fuel oil may drift long distances and impact on coasts -  with associated high compensation and clean-up costs.


The precise properties of the particular heavy fuel oil spilled, as well as prevailing weather conditions, may have a significant  impact on choice of response/clean-up operations as well as on the ultimate success or otherwise of the clean-up operation.

The International Tanker Owners’ Pollution Federation Limited (ITOPF) indicates that of  some 450 spills attended by its staff in the last 25 years, about 40 per cent have involved medium or heavy grades of fuel oil, either carried as cargo or used by larger vessels as bunker fuel. In the last two years, half of  all oil spills attended have involved heavy fuel oils.

IMO has recognized the problem posed by spills of oil carried as bunkers – the International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution, adopted in March 2001, will enter into force 12 months after ratification by 18 States, including five States with ships whose total gross tonnage is not less than one million.


Oil Pollution Manual

The Oil Pollution Manual provides a useful guide for governments of developing countries and for those persons directly associated with the sea transportation and transfer of oil. The manual is divided into five sections:

Section I - Prevention

Section II - Contingency Planning  - Provides guidance to governments, particularly those of developing countries, on ways and means of establishing a response organization and preparing contingency plans

Section III – Salvage– This section is intended to be used in conjunction with the national contingency plan.  The guidance helps Administrations and officials involved with oil pollution casualties to mitigate the effects of such accidents, whether there is spillage from a tanker or the release of bunkers from dry cargo vessels or passenger vessels.

Section IV - Combating Oil Spills  - This section provides an overview of practical response measures which are available to deal with oil spills and takes account of developments in this field. Chapters include: fate of oil spills in the marine environment, effects of oil on marine and coastal resources, situation evaluation and response options, containment and recovery of oil, chemical dispersion, shore-line clean-up, disposal of oil and oily debris, practical training and equipment maintenance and storage, clean-up cost considerations.

Section V - Administrative Aspects of Oil Pollution Response This section is intended to provide the reader, in particular on-scene commanders, lead agencies and others involved in the management of oil pollution response, with an appreciation of the various interests involved in an oil pollution emergency and its aftermath, as well as a general review of the international legal and voluntary industry regimes governing limitation of liability and compensation for oil pollution damage. It is not intended to provide an authorized or definitive commentary on the legal relationships between the various entities involved in an oil pollution emergency or an interpretation of relevant international conventions.

Section VI - Guidelines for Sampling and Identification of Oil Spills - The guidelines are intended to provide guidance to governments, including those of developing countries, on the techniques, equipment and strategies for sampling oil to identify unknown sources of spilled oil. The emphasis is on the details of the field work required to collect the samples.

IMO/UNEP Guidelines on Oil Spill Dispersant Application including Environmental Considerations

The Guidelines provide up-to-date information on the use of oil spill dispersants. They are intended primarily for use by Member Governments and other oil spill responders and should be read with the Manual on Oil Pollution, section IV: Combating Oil Spills (IMO-569E). The present edition of these Guidelines supersedes the 1982 edition.

A first draft version of the text was presented to the thirty-fifth session (March 1994) of IMO's Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) by the Government of France, acting through the Centre de documentation de recherche et d'expérimentations sur les pollutions accidentelles des eaux (CEDRE). A workshop was subsequently held in Brest (France). The resulting document was considered and approved at the thirty-sixth session (October/November 1994) of the MEPC.





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