Interview: Katharina Stanzel, Managing Director, Intertanko


Published May 29, 2023 12:43 PM by Tony Munoz

(Article originally published in Mar/Apr 2023 edition.)

“Serendipity and coincidence” brought Katharina Stanzel to INTERTANKO twelve years ago, and the unlikely combination of a marine biologist and the world’s leading independent tanker owners has been a huge success. Together, they’ve made INTERTANKO a voice for change in the maritime industry and an exemplar of responsible environmental management, forward-looking thinking and governance policies, and sustainable operations. “They wanted to go in a new direction,” Stanzel explains, “and that’s what we did.”

Welcome, Kathi! We’re honored to have you on this edition’s cover as you have a sterling reputation as a marine biologist and industry leader. So tell us a little about yourself. What attracted you to the maritime industry?

Serendipity and coincidence would sum it up, but I think you want a bit more than that. I started off studying in Germany. I was actually on track to become a plant geneticist. That was my chosen field. And then one day a very helpful but incredibly arrogant professor sat us all down and said, "Look, if you don't speak English well enough to sell your research project to a room full of 500 people that have funding, you will end up as my research assistants and you will never progress any further."

And that really got my attention. So I determined to learn English. I asked around and wound up going to a university in Australia. When I got there, I thought I was going to study microbiology and genetics, as I was doing in Germany. But the Dean of Science, who met me on the first day, basically just laughed and said, "Oh, we don't offer that. You sent us your CV, and it says you're a diver. So we thought, well, you wanted to do marine biology."

And honestly, that was the serendipity because I said, "Well, can I?" And that changed my career path.

Incredible, awesome.

Yes, it was awesome. And the people were the other lucky thing for me. As a young German, I was probably fairly rectangular when I got there, but they stopped me from becoming really square and gave me no chance to stay set in my ways or very Germanic. And the other thing I learned was that “If you don't ask, you don't get.”

How did that lead to INTERTANKO?

Well, first I worked in Indonesia as a marine biologist but returned to Europe when the Asian crisis in the mid-nineties made it more and more unsafe to work there. After some time temping in Asia and the U.K., I was on the way back to Germany, flying out of Heathrow, when I picked up a newspaper and saw a job advert for a position that something inside me said, “That's your job. That is you.”

It was a job with ITOPF, the then-International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, an organization that employs scientists to assist on site during shipping-related pollution incidents, to try and minimize the damage. And I was very lucky again because I got the job and I did it for 10 years here in London. Then I moved to a position with a U.N. body that deals with compensation from oil pollution incidents, the IOPC Funds. And from there I got headhunted into INTERTANKO.

Okay, tell us more about getting the job at INTERTANKO. It was an unlikely position for a marine biologist.

When I got interviewed for this job, I had a conversation with the selection committee because I didn't think it was very credible to hire somebody to run INTERTANKO who didn't have any commercial shipping experience. I asked them, "Why would you make this decision? It doesn't seem sound." And their response at the time, and I've seen it borne out in fact, was that ultimately they felt that INTERTANKO members were forward-looking. They look at the long-term challenges and needs with environmental concerns very high on the agenda, and they could see that environmental regulation was one of the biggest challenges coming down the track. And that was 12 years ago.

As a marine biologist, I would not be working for INTERTANKO today if I wasn't 100 percent convinced that our members want to be part of a quality club and they put their money where their mouth is. They had targets and ideals about operational excellence and environmental protection that were there when they hired me. And that was the reason I took the job. And that's also why I'm happy to stand and speak on their behalf today. There's a real mindset in INTERTANKO that goes far beyond compliance.

In fact, we've recently agreed with members to work on a zero-discharge strategy for MARPOL Annex II. We don't think we should be discharging cargo residues and tank washings to the marine environment.

But we can't do it alone. We need the collaboration of others to make sure there are shoreside reception facilities. We believe that as a responsible industry in today's day and age, it's anachronistic to discharge washwater, even if it is legal. So we have that vision to push it forward and a roadmap for engagement and delivery. And that’s really what still excites me about INTERTANKO. It’s a quality club of owners who are a coalition of the willing, of the can-dos.

Who are the members, and what percentage of the world’s tanker fleet do they represent?

INTERTANKO is an association of independent owners, and by “independent” we mean they cannot benefit from captive cargos. They don't have cargos guaranteed by an energy company or a government; they make their own investment decisions and compete with each other in the free market. The Shells, BPs and Chevrons of the world, they’re all Associate Members, but their fleets don’t count in our totals.

It's a quality club. And that quality club also wants to be transparent. So, if anyone wanted to find any of our owners, the information about them and about every one of their vessels is all on our website, publicly accessible. There's no hiding. It's completely transparent. It's one of the cornerstones of what INTERTANKO stands for.

As for numbers, we have 180 Member companies and 234 Associate Members. And we only count the full Members’ fleets, and that’s about 3,900 vessels – all ocean-going tankers for oil, gas, chemicals. About 360 million deadweight tons or roughly 58 percent of the global independent tanker fleet. The percentage depends on which subsector you look at, so there are some significant variations between gas, chemical, crude oil and product tankers. But if you look at it overall, it's about 58 percent.

Okay, so more than half.


You have a big meeting coming up in Dubai in May, your annual meeting. Tell us about that. What goes on there?

It's interesting because if you look at the governance of INTERTANKO, it's a very democratic organization. We have a Council of Members, which is currently 180 strong, so every Member has a seat on the Council. It's like the United Nations, literally. And the Council sets the policy for the association, and that's what happens in Dubai. We also have an Executive Committee, which is a small subset – 17 members – and they meet to prepare the discussions.

Then we hold an AGM, which is of course the Annual General Meeting, which is held every May to sign off on last year's accounts mainly. And then we always have a tanker event as well discussing issues relevant to members and the wider industry.

It’s a very interesting group because ultimately, when they make a decision, even if it costs more money, they’re paying out of their own pocket. So when they debate these far-reaching policy questions, they do it willingly and they do it, in my mind, because they have a very long horizon. Many of the members I work with, and this is also something that keeps me here, either come from generations of family members building pride in a product, in a service, or top operators aiming to be the best and the most efficient.

Because ultimately, they are the service providers who keep the global economy going by shipping energy around the world. And that's quite a responsible job. And when you look at investment horizons, you don't buy a tanker for five years. You have a design life of 25 years or longer, so you want to make sure that your asset is the best that it can be and that it delivers in the best way it can.

What's your biggest challenge right now?

Probably the complexity of some of the issues we're dealing with. Complexity is something, as human beings, we find quite hard. We tend to simplify because human nature says, “Simplify it for me so I can solve it.” But currently our environmental challenges are very complex.

If you're talking about climate change, if you read everything that's out there, it’s incredibly complex and in places contradictory. What can we do? How can we tackle this?

Then we have to be honest because this whole thing about new fuels, for example, is also about what renewable electricity is available to produce those fuels for shipping in the first place? And if we produce those lower carbon fuels with coal power, what have we gained? That discussion currently translates into the IMO deciding that, when we look at alternative fuels, we need to look at a lifecycle assessment. It cannot be “tank-to-wake,” it has to be “well-to-wake” to tell the full story.

There's no point looking at a fuel's carbon impact or climate change impact once it's in the tank of a vessel. That's shortsighted. Let's look at it from where you get it either out of the ground or from the sun or wherever you get it from. And let's look at the whole footprint. And of course that's uncomfortable because people then say, "Well, I can't control that bit. Why do I have to deal with that?"

Okay. You are obviously a very impressive woman and leader. How did that happen? Why are you able to be so balanced and part diplomat, part scientist, part leader? What’s your secret?

I'm probably just honest about my curiosity because the one thing I love doing is understanding new things, learning new things. And I think asking lots of questions is probably a prerequisite to understanding things. There are so many experts who know so much more than I do, and I have this unique opportunity to learn from all of them by just being around them, asking questions, trying to understand.

Then sometimes it’s about being the liaison and the translator, effectively, because a lot of what we do as an association is to translate operational realities into regulatory possibilities and vice-versa. A lot of the time we will be consulted, and regulators may actually call us and say, "Look, we’re trying to do this. How can we translate that into regulation that will actually be workable?"

We're honest brokers in that our members have skin in the game and it's about, “How can we solve the problem?” It's that focus, I think, on always making things better and always trying to work toward a solution and looking for common interests.

One thing I don't believe in is positions. That happens very often. People will ask, "Oh, what's your position on this or that" and I have to say I don't care what your position is because if two people sit at a table, if you look at it physically, they are sitting in two different positions although they are at the same table. So the position is irrelevant.

It's about common interests. Can we identify those and then work toward them? That also means that we don't have to be on the same path to that common interest. We can get there two different ways as long as we see eye-to-eye on the goal.

Wow, impressive! How do you unwind? What do you do to relax?

The quickest way for me to relax, and I don't get to do it as much now, is to be underwater. You give me a scuba set and put me underwater for three minutes and I'm the most Zen person on the planet. I love it. So diving is my passion. And I've dived everywhere from Iceland to Australia and been incredibly lucky not only in where I’ve dived but also in all the places I've managed to work.

Excellent! Do you have any parting words for us? As a marine biologist and the leader of an industry that's always under scrutiny and always the villain whenever there’s an oil spill or a ship collision that leaks oil, what are your final thoughts for our readers about INTERTANKO and your mission?

Well, maybe you've just highlighted the one thing we don't do well enough yet. Maybe what we need to do more is sell the story of how much this sector has cleaned up, which is borne out by statistics and demonstrated operational excellence.

As for parting words, well, “We're all in it together” might be the one thing I would say. Decarbonization and net zero are challenges that we can only solve if people put this little marble that we all live on first, if we accept that Spaceship Earth is what we need to look after, first and foremost. 

Tony Munoz is Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of The Maritime Executive.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.