Operation to defuse maritime time bomb underway

Campaigners have welcomed the news that work to remove millions on tonnes of oil from a floating storage and offloading unit (FSO) off the coast of Yemen has begun.

The vessel, the FSO Safer is located approximately 4.8 nautical miles off the coast of Yemen. It was originally built as an ultra-large crude carrier (ULCC) in Japan in 1976 and converted to an FSO in 1986. Since 1988, it has been moored at Ras Isa where, prior to the escalation of the conflict in 2015, it had been receiving, storing and exporting crude oil flowing from the Marib oil fields. The FSO Safer is owned by Yemen’s national oil company, the Safer Exploration & Production Operation Company (SEPOC).

Due to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, all production and export operations related to FSO Safer were suspended in 2015, with an estimated 150,000 MT (around 1.1 million barrels) of crude oil remaining onboard. This is four times the amount spilled during the Exxon Valdez incident in 1989, even though circumstances differ greatly.

The conflict in the country has left the FSO, isolated and the vessel had not been inspected or maintained since 2015 and has been out of class since 2016. This led to serious concerns about its integrity.

In response to rising fears over the vessel and the potential for oil to spill, the United Nation’s launched an initiative which had seen marine salvage company SMIT, a subsidiary of Boskalis, contracted to inspect and ready the FSO Safer before safely carrying out a ship-to-ship transfer of the oil.

As the operation to transfer oil from the FSO Safer to a replacement vessel gets underway, The International Maritime Organisation  said it is providing technical support and has contracted a Crisis Management specialist to be onsite for the length of the operation.

“While the operation carries risks, there has been extensive contingency planning. As part of this process, IMO has assisted UNDP with the arrangement of the procurement and commissioning of specialized oil spill response equipment to mitigate a spill of oil,” It explained.

The IMO explained that a spill from the tanker had the potential to create an environmental disaster.

“An oil spill from the FSO Safer would be a major humanitarian and environmental disaster,” It warned. “A significant spill is likely to heavily impact the north-western coastline of Yemen, including the Yemeni Islands in the Red Sea, and Kamaran Island in particular. There is also a potential for oil to drift and impact neighbouring countries, including Djibouti, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia.

“The area encompasses vulnerable ecosystems, including mangroves, coral reefs and bird habitats, as well as key infrastructures such as desalination plants and fishing ports.

“The specific impacts of a spill would depend on variety of factors, such as the amount of oil spilled, the oil’s weathering characteristics and the meteorological and oceanic conditions at the time. Various spill scenarios from FSO Safer have been investigated to enhance the understanding of the potential damage to the environment.”

Environ meta, organisation Greenpeace has welcomed the news that the oil transfer is now underway.

Ghiwa Nakat, executive director for Greenpeace MENA, said: “The neglected FSO Safer supertanker and its 1.1 million barrels of oil cargo has been a ticking time bomb since 2015 threatening a humanitarian, environmental and economic catastrophe, it is only the heroic efforts of a small skeleton crew and a great deal of luck that disaster has not happened. While the salvage operation has its risks, these are less than doing nothing. We hope that the rescue operation marks the final chapter in this terrifying story caused by oil companies.”

Greenpeace described the vessel  and the risk of an oil spill or explosion as “a sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of millions of people living in the region”.

“Such a catastrophe could inflict irreparable damage on the ecosystems of the Red Sea and the livelihoods of the region’s coastal communities, both of which are already threatened by the ongoing war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the impacts of the ongoing climate crisis,” it explained. “The threat cannot be averted until the oil is completely and safely removed.”

Nakat added: “The rescue mission stands as a testament to the power of global cooperation, as the UN and the international community have stepped up, but it is we the people that are footing the bill and not the polluters.”

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