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Minister whose firm profited from Gibraltar bunkering now mulls marine protection zone

Socialists demand that environment chief Arias Cañete explain his connections with polluting offshore refueling practice

The Spanish Environment Ministry is considering a ban on bunkering — ship refueling at floating gas stations — in the Strait of Gibraltar, a move that is strongly opposed by the government of The Rock, where bunkering is major economic activity.

Green groups have been reporting for years that these floating stores cause frequent oil spills, and that the potential for a major environmental disaster in the Bay of Algeciras is high. Madrid has said it may designate the area a Special Protection Zone, a suggestion decried as worthy of Spain’s “fascist” past by Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.

Miguel Arias Cañete, the man at the head of the ministry considering the creation of an aquatic conservation zone, has plenty of personal knowledge of the issue. One of the companies that regularly bought fuel from these Gibraltarian gas stations was Petrolífera Ducar, a Ceuta-based oil firm owned by Environment Minister Arias Cañete and his relatives. Environmentalists and the Socialist Party have denounced a conflict of interests; the minister declined to comment on his private business activities.

Cañete presided Ducar until December 22. His shares in the company are worth 165,120 euros, according to his own asset statement presented to Congress. His wife and his brother-in-law, Miguel Domecq Solís, also own shares in the company, whose main activity is bunkering. “Ducar bought [fuel] from floating gas stations in waters that Gibraltar considers its own, and later resold it in Ceuta at a good margin,” explains Antonio Muñoz, head of the environmental group Ecologists in Action-Verdemar. Buying fuel from the Cepsa refinery in Algeciras is safer but more expensive than buying it from Gibraltar’s offshore stations, explains Muñoz.

If all his life he has been linked to bunkering, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for him to now be environment minister"

A Ducar spokesman said in an email that “since late 2011 we stopped engaging in bunkering and focused on logistics and storage of oil products.” In other words, when he was appointed agriculture and environment minister after the Popular Party’s electoral victory last November, Arias Cañete stepped down as Ducar president and the company says that it is no longer involved in bunkering.

A spokesman for Vemaoil, the Gibraltar firm that Ducar mostly bought fuel from, would not comment. “Ask Cañete,” was his only, ironic reply. The minister refused to answer this newspaper’s questions and a spokesperson said he will do his explaining in Congress. The Socialist Party has already asked that he appear to explain his business ventures.

“If all his life he has been linked to bunkering, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for him to now be environment minister and say that it’s a polluting activity," notes Miguel Ángel Heredia, a Socialist deputy for Málaga.

Muñoz adds: “Cañete talks about defending the interests of Spanish fishermen in Gibraltar, but he was the first person to benefit from Gibraltar’s contaminating companies.”

Madrid’s environmental protection initiative comes at a time of particular tension between Spain and Gibraltar over fishing rights in waters that the latter considers its own.

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