The owners of the Sea Empress did amazingly well in keeping their names
out of the headlines says Chris Laming, director of communications,
As crises go, the Sea Empress supertanker disaster had a bit of
everything. As the huge ship wallowed off Milford Haven, spewing its
crude all over the wildlife, the ensuing drama gave rise to masses of
TV, pages of editorial reportage, analysis, graphics and pictures. We
had political outrage, environmental outrage, David Bellamy, even a
Chinese waiter called in to interpret for a tug crew.
We had the Daily Telegraph’s leader writers telling us the whole thing
was a PR coup for organisations such as Greenpeace and the Guardian’s
picture of two members of the ‘Texaco Natural History Club’ rescuing
sea birds, just in case we’d forgotten how caring oil company employees
really can be.
There were early references to one of the major oil companies as the
owners of the oil, but not the ship, as they quickly pointed out. So I
kept wondering who did own the vessel. It turned out to be John
Fredriksen and his Cyprus-based Seatankers group; (facts I gleaned from
the shipping newspaper Lloyds’ List). Another company you’ve never heard
of, this time from Glasgow, was responsible for managing the vessel and
their spokesman did do a couple of TV interviews on the salvage
operation. Nobody, though, attempted to hang him out to dry, which is
what normally happens to shipping lines when things go so badly wrong -
the owners were never in the limelight.
Of course we are not talking about a household name but I bet you a
million gallons of the finest four-star that if, for example, the vessel
had been operated by Shell, things would have been different. We’d have
had flashbacks to Brent Spar, boycotts of the pumps, protest rallies in
Germany and top Shell executives being pasted all over Newsnight.
While Exxon are proba bly still smarting from the Valdiz disaster all
those years ago, the owners of Sea Empress are already through the worst
of it by now. Their losses will be largely financial and their 11
remaining tankers will continue to trade.
But what about the other players involved? Shipping minister Lord
Goschen was certainly struggling under the slick of bad feeling which
floated his way and took the rap prior to any forthcoming formal
The salvors came out badly despite the efforts of the man from the
Marine Pollution Control Unit who gave a credible performance on the
The environmentalists did well, the seabirds didn’t, and the shipping
company benefited from its foreign ownership and anonymity. The
ultimate ‘no comment’ as one journalist chum of mine put it.
The moral for all oil companies must be to get someone we’ve never heard
of to run your tanker fleets for you.