Back in December, I'd mentioned how my friend Nate has taken on a new hobby of "shipspotting" from his third-floor apartment on Portland's Munjoy Hill, where he has an excellent view of the Portland Pipe Line oil terminal and the tankers that dock there.
At the time, I wrote that "if more curious harbor-watchers like Nate were able to accurately track the transoceanic commerce of these ships, we might have a better idea of where our oil is really coming from... Is our oil British, from the fields of the North Sea? Or Arabian? Russian? Venezuelan? For now, that's the proprietary knowledge of shipping and oil corporations - but it's knowledge that's free for the taking, for anyone with harbor views."
Since then, I've subscribed to Nate's new "Ships in Port" blog, where he's been posting updates of harbor traffic along with tidbits on the ships' histories and crews (this information is still surprisingly scarce - most oil tanker companies haven't embraced the internet, with a few exceptions). And thanks to Nate's latest post, I've learned that you don't even need harbor views to keep track of harbor traffic: new marine regulations actually require every large vessel to carry an electronic transponder, "which transmits their position, speed and course, among some other static information, such as vessel’s name, dimensions and voyage details."
Naturally, a web developer has designed a Google Maps mash-up to post the transponders' transmissions on a world map at marinetraffic.com. Here's a link to the map of what's in Portland Harbor; here's a view of Philadelphia's harbor, and here's the very busy Port of Long Beach, in Los Angeles.
So indeed, it is possible to keep track of where our oil might be coming from, by tracking the positions of the ships that visit Portland. Back on January 20, for instance, the Front Brabant was unloading oil at the Portland Pipe Line terminal. A search for the vessel on marinetraffic.com reveals that after about 2 weeks of transponder silence, while the vessel was at sea, the Front Brabant suddenly popped up again at longitude -44.22946, latitude -23.06147: the Port of Angra Dos Reis, just west of Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.
According to Wikipedia, Angra Dos Reis has "countless beaches, islands and pristine waters perfect for swimming or scuba diving," plus an oil terminal and Brasil's only nuclear power plant. If those sound like odd neighbors, keep in mind that Casco Bay, an emblem of the rugged Maine coast and a big tourism destination in its own right, also sports a major oil terminal and a major fossil-fueled power station on Cousins Island that produces a lot more pollution than Brasil's nuclear reactors ever will.
Unfortunately, marinetraffic.com doesn't reveal what cargo the Front Brabant is loading or unloading in Brasil - but my bet is that it's re-loading its hold with Brasil's soy-based biofuels. I'm planning to track the Front Brabant over the next few months to see where it goes - and where our oil comes from.