UN coordinator urges public help with funding to stave off ‘5th largest oil spill from a tanker in history’

IMO appeals to member states for equipment to prevent catastrophic oil spill from FSO Safer

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is urging Member States to contribute equipment to help UN-led efforts to prevent a possible catastrophic oil spill from the FSO Safer, a rapidly decaying floating storage offshore (FSO) unit moored off the Red Sea coast of Yemen.

FSO Safer; Source: The UN

IMO is providing expertise in oil spill preparedness and response as part of the contingency planning for a possible oil spill from the supertanker, in line with its mandate set out in the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation. 

The vessel contains an estimated 150,000 metric tonnes of crude oil, four times the amount spilled during the Exxon Valdez incident in 1989. It has been moored at Ras Isa since 1988 where it had been receiving, storing and exporting crude oil flowing from the Marib oil fields. But in 2015, due to the war in Yemen, production, offloading and maintenance operations were suspended.  

The vessel has not been inspected since then, but all assessments of its structural integrity suggest it has now deteriorated to the extent that it is beyond repair, and at imminent risk of breaking up or exploding. The danger is of a significant oil spill that would surpass Yemen’s capacity and resources to effectively respond. 

On 9 March, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) signed an agreement to purchase a very large crude carrier (VLCC), the Nautica, to take on the oil from the FSO Safer by emergency ship-to-ship transfer. Such operations are complex and inherently risky.  

The Nautica left Zhousha in China on 6 April and is expected to arrive in the Red Sea in early May.

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 UNDP has also signed an agreement with Dutch offshore services provider Boskalis, through its subsidiary SMIT Salvage, to remove oil from the tanker.

Boskalis’ project scope consists of a number of phases. The multipurpose support vessel Ndeavor has been prepared in the Netherlands and is set to sail to Djibouti over the coming three weeks.

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The salvage crew will make the final preparations in Djibouti before departing for the site located off the coast of Yemen. The initial onsite phase will focus on a thorough inspection of the vessel and its cargo and creating a safe working environment.

Once the vessel and its cargo tanks are declared safe, an UN-purchased very large crude carrier (VLCC) will come alongside at which point the ship-to-ship oil pumping operation can commence.

Safer’s tanks will subsequently be cleaned and the residual water will also be transferred into the VLCC.

The entire onsite operation is expected to be completed within two months. Once Safer is declared clean and empty, it will be prepared for towing to a green scrapping yard under the responsibility of the UN.

“Contingency planning for the transfer operation is, therefore, intensifying. One critical gap identified in Yemen’s preparedness to respond to an oil spill is the lack of specialized equipment within the country,” the IMO said.  

Because of lengthy lead times for the manufacture and acquisition of oil spill response equipment, IMO is seeking contributions of used or near end-of-life spill response equipment that can be transported to the region within weeks.”

The organization has provided a list of the required equipment annexed to Circular Letter No.4714, which includes items such as booms to contain any spill and oil skimmer brushes, as well as oil dispersants and rapid erection, self-standing storage tanks. 

Information on who to contact with expressions of interest, or for additional information, can be found here

An oil spill from the FSO Safer would be a major humanitarian and environmental disaster likely to heavily impact the north-western coastline of Yemen, including the Yemeni Islands in the Red Sea, and Kamaran Island in particular – an area that encompasses vulnerable ecosystems. There is also potential for oil to drift and impact neighbouring countries, including Djibouti, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia.  

Many Yemeni coastal communities that could be affected already rely on humanitarian aid to meet their basic needs, and a significant oil spill would seriously impact on the health and livelihoods of the people relying on resources from the sea. It could also severely disrupt operations at Yemen’s Hudaydah port, the point of entry for essential imported food, fuel and life-saving supplies. UNDP estimates the cost of clean-up alone would be $20 billion.