FEW OF THE essential facts about the recent collision of two loaded oil tankers in the Caribbean are known. Where was each ship headed? (It has been reported that one was delivering Arabian crude to Singapore, an odd mission to bring it io the Caribbean.) Who owns the oil involved? (Mobile has claimed ownership of one cargo but the other remains a mystery.) And above all, how did the accident happen? True, it was raining, and that makes the redars "fuzzy." But the seas were calm, traffic was light, and it wasn't even dark. For ocean-going behemoths that require 15 miles to stop and 6 miles to avoid each other, it seems incredible -- even after Skylab, the Dc10, Love Canal and the rest -- that the two ships, as was reported, "first saw each other when they were 600 feet apart."
Once the facts have been gathered, there may turn out to have been some reasonable explanation for what threatened to be the worst oil-tanker accident in history.Until then people can only speculate whether equipment failure or some egregious human lapse caused the collision. But one thing is already clear: The international rules for managing tanker traffic and ensuring safety are still not even close to being good enough.
Once the cause of this accident is known, it will be interesting in this connection to determine whether the expensive new collision-avoidance systems recently required for all new ships under U.S. law might have helped avert this one.
Not far from these two oil slicks, Mexico's blown well in the Bay of Campeche is continuing to spew out 30,000 barrels of oil a day. Though cleaning up any oil spill at sea is notoriously difficult, the blown well presents an especially tough problem. The oil escapes from the well on the sea floor and by the time it has floated to the surface is in the form of an oilwater emulsion that resembles (and is known in the trade as) a "chocolate mousse," which resists most cleanup methods. It is estimated that it will take until September to drill the relief wells that will stop this eruption, and there are already 1.5 million or more barrels of oil floating in the bay. Depending on the currents -- about which little is known -- the slick could drift north and effect the entire Gulf Coast.
The Campeche accident is the first oil blowout from an exploratory well. Not long ago Congress debated how to regulate such drilling. Industry argued that little control was needed since exploratory drilling (as distinct from production-well drilling) poses little danger. Now Campeche seems to confirm the wisdom of taking the more cautious approach for dangerous and delicate technologies such as offshore oil drilling.
Neither of these accidents occured in U.S. waters, for which we can be grateful. In both cases, there seems to be solid cooperation between various U.S. federal entities and the parties directly involved. What is dramatically clear is the potential impact of activities in foreign waters on U.S. resources. The planned drilling off Canada's east coast above the rich fisheries of the George's Bank is a case in point. What is called for now, and what these accidents so brutally illustrate, is much closer cooperation, maybe even a common body of rules and regulations, between the United States and its two neighbors.