Status quo, Revision of the Montreux Convention to Avoid the Ship traffic and Energy Transit or What?

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It is difficult to believe that Turkey has de jure almost no real control over the increasing number of vessels passing through its narrow Straits, namely the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles under the 1936 Montreux Convention, which settled some of the outstanding issues left over from the Treaty of Lausanne, viewed as the "deed" of the Republic of Turkey.


The Black Sea's only connection to the world's oceans is through Turkey's Straits and the Sea of Marmara. All the dangers and obstacles characteristic of narrow waterways are present and acute in this critical sea lane.


The terms of the Convention were largely a reflection of the international situation in the mid-1930s, having served in large measure Turkish and then Soviet interests in terms of enabling Turkey to regain military control of the Straits and assuring the Soviet dominance of the Black Sea.


Changing Requirements


Since the signing of the 1936 Convention, conditions have changed significantly, the sizes and contents of the ships have also changed. The volume of traffic has increased immensely - from 4,500 in 1934 to 49,304 in 1998 and 87,593 ships in 2017, making the Turkish Straits one of the world's busiest maritime chokepoints.


Under normal circumstances, the contracting parties would sit down and revise the relevant provisions to update them in light of the new requirements. This has not happened to date because there is a deep-seated concern in Ankara that once the Pandora's box is opened you never know where it might lead to. There is also an unwillingness among other parties which signed the Convention to bring any restrictions to the free passage. They are worried about additional cost that may be brought on for ensuring the security of the waterways.


Safety of İstanbul and Çanakkale


The transit in the Turkish Straits increased significantly since the times of the Montreux Convention.The safety of vessels passing through the Bosphorus has become a major concern. Maritime incidents in the Straits also pose a considerable risk to public safety. Accidents continue to happen - 141 since 2006 - and the risk of a major accident remains too high in the context of rapidly increasing transit traffic.


I recall vividly that MT Independența ("Independence"), a large Romanian crude oil carrier, collided in 1979 with a Greek freighter at the southern entrance of Bosphorus, and exploded. Almost all of the tanker's crew members died. The wreck of the Independența burned for weeks, causing heavy air and sea pollution in the Istanbul area and the Sea of Marmara.


The risk of similar accidents has not receded as was the case recently with a ship hitting the shore of the Bosphorus Strait. The Malta-flagged tanker was carrying 62.6 tons of dough from Russia to Saudi Arabia. The strait has been closed for two-way vessel traffic.


Attempts at Changing the Montreux Regime


With some many parties and interests involved it is not easy to make even the slightest change to the Straits regime. As a matter of fact, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which entered into force in November 1994, has prompted calls for the Montreux Convention to be revised and adapted to make it compatible with UNCLOS's regime governing straits used for international navigation. However, Turkey's long-standing refusal to sign UNCLOS has meant that Montreux remains in force without further amendments.


The Convention does not make any provision for the regulation of shipping for the purposes of safety and environmental protection. In January 1994 the Turkish government went ahead despite protests to adopt new "Maritime Traffic Regulations for the Turkish Straits and the Marmara Region in order to ensure the safety of navigation, life, and property and to protect the environment in the region" but without violating the Montreux principle of free passage. The regulations were revised in November 1998 to address Russian concerns.


Energy Transit on the Increase


Energy transit was not a high priority issue at the time of the Convention negotiations just before the breakout of the Second World War, but it is becoming so now. The Turkish Straits are and will probably remain one of the bottlenecks of the global energy trade, among other hot spots such as the Strait of Hormuz, the Malacca Strait, the Suez Canal and the Danish Straits, with the unfortunate distinction of being the only one that has a flourishing metropolis right on its shores - Istanbul - while being extremely narrow and treacherous to navigate.


Thousands of tankers transit the Turkish Straits annually, the vast majority of them headed southbound (from the Black Sea towards the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean). An estimated 3 million barrels a day of crude oil and 20 million tonnes/year petroleum products flow through the Turkish Straits. This represents around 3 percent of the annual global oil trade, compared to 18-20 percent that passes through the Strait of Hormuz.


The Black Sea ports are among the primary oil export routes for Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. At its peak, more than 3.4 million b/d transited the Turkish Straits, but volumes have fallen as Russia has shifted crude oil exports away from the Black Sea and toward the Baltic ports. Now, Tenghiz and Kashagan oil fields are likely to increase more crude exports via the Black Sea.  Azerbaijan is also looking for alternative export routes for its natural gas, through pipelines or liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports from terminals on the east coast of the Black Sea. Although most of this LNG would be sent to re-gasification terminals in Ukraine, Romania or Bulgaria, some could find its way southbound through the Straits.


The increasing oil tanker transit creates significant environmental, public safety and economic risks for the entire length of the shores of the Turkish Straits, as well as higher costs for the tanker owners and customers caused by transit restrictions during night-time, weather, and other factors.


No Easy Fixes


The unique local realities of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles are creating a sense of urgency for easing the straits' ship traffic and energy transit that is acuter than for the other global transit chokepoints. Therefore, I believe that revising the Montreux Convention in keeping with the changing times is not only a legal matter. Nor is it a political matter between the contracting parties to resolve. The extra cost of bypassing the Straits for energy transit and reducing the congested ship traffic is worth every penny was given that the viability of several cities and more than 20 million people's security and well being are at stake.


The idea of a bypass pipeline can be revived, Several Straits-bypassing pipeline routes had been promoted during the last decade. The Trans-Anatolia pipeline, a 560 km Project, would carry 1-1.4 million bbl/day (50-70 million tonnes/year) of Russian crude from the Black Sea port of Samsun to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. However, the discussions around the Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline project stalled in September 2010 and there has been no major progress due to its feasibility questioned seriously. The other bypass pipeline proposed through the Turkish territory, the Trans-Thrace Project, would transport up to 1.4 million bbl/day (70 million tonnes/year) of crude on a 280 km route from Saray on the Black Sea coast through the Marmara Sea port of Ambarli to Saros Bay at the Aegean Sea. This project, too, has been dormant for several years now.


A relatively new project is the Istanbul Canal, advanced by Ankara since April 2011 for diverting part of the Straits traffic. The proposed Canal would be 45-50 km long, 150 m wide and 25 m deep, and would connect the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea. The tentative completion date that was announced is 2023 to coincide with the Republic of Turkey's 100th anniversary.


The Way Forward


It is still too early to make an assessment of the proposed canal project; however, it is clear that the costs and the engineering challenges will be huge. It could also be difficult to divert traffic from the Bosphorus - where there are no transit fees - to a canal that charges a transit fee; as the Turkish Straits are the only maritime outlet towards the world's oceans of the Black Sea countries, all of them will have to be consulted on the new canal project; finally, the status of the new canal vis-à-vis the Montreux Convention will have to be clarified.


However, it looks like for the time being, at least, when we have witnessed dangerous geopolitical moves in our neighborhood, the status quo could still be the preferred option. This does not mean that, while avoiding unilateral actions and measures, Turkey should not also shy away from developing a "win-win" proposition to address its own troubles experienced since 1936 under the Montreux Convention of course without causing any serious damage to the interests of the contracting parties using at the present the right to free passage through its Straits.


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