With oil disaster averted, world breathes a sigh of relief but more funds needed to wrap things up

While the conclusion of the UN-led efforts to prevent a potential catastrophic oil spill by removing over one million barrels of oil from a decaying floating storage offshore (FSO) unit moored off the Red Sea coast of Yemen offers the world a chance to catch its breath, this project is not over yet. The immediate threat of a massive spill in the Red Sea has been prevented, however, the way to secure the funds to complete the operation in full hangs in the air with around $20 million still missing.  

FSO Safer with Yemen and Ndeavor moored alongside; Courtesy of Boskalis

The FSO Safer was abandoned off the Red Sea port of Hudaydah after a civil war broke out in Yemen in 2015. Prior to the conflict, the 1976-built supertanker, which was converted a decade later into what is in effect a floating oil container, was used to store and export oil from fields around Ma’rib, but the fighting brought production, as well as maintenance of the vessel, to a halt.

Due to the possibility of a huge oil spill, the UN repeatedly warned of the danger the decrepit tanker posed to Yemen and the broader region as it was at risk of leaking, breaking apart, or exploding, which would have resulted in catastrophic environmental and humanitarian consequences.

Any potential oil spill would have forced the closure of all ports in the area alone, cutting off food, fuel and other life-saving supplies to a country where more than 21 million people – 80 per cent – rely on aid. This would have unleashed a disaster, estimated to have the potential for a massive oil spill four times worse than the Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska in 1989. 

Therefore, a plan to address the threat posed by the FSO Safer was designed, comprising two critical tracks: an emergency operation to transfer the oil from the FSO to a temporary vessel and the installation of a long-term replacement vessel or another capacity equivalent to the FSO within a target of 18 months.

After the salvage operations to secure the 376-metre-long FSO Safer were delayed multiple times in the past due to lack of funding, a UN salvage team began pumping oil from the FSO Safer onto a replacement vessel on 25 July 2023 as part of the two-track plan, following two years of fundraising, including through a crowdfunding campaign.

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This followed preparations on-site by a marine salvage company, SMIT Salvage, a subsidiary of Boskalis, which began in May. The UN Development Programme (UNDP), which contracted SMIT, is implementing the operation.

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Nabil Hayel Saeed Anam, Managing Director of HSA Group – Yemen region, said: “HSA Group welcomes the completion of the transfer of more than one million barrels of oil from the FSO Safer, which has prevented a major humanitarian, economic and ecological disaster in the Red Sea.

“We are grateful for the efforts of all those who ensured that this operation could take place in a safe and timely manner, including the Boskalis/SMIT salvage team, UN personnel, the international community and all other stakeholders that have contributed.

“In particular, we would like to thank the Fahem Group, and especially Fathi Fahem, for the tireless efforts exerted in facilitating the arrangements between the parties. Both the Fahem Group and HSA Group’s efforts demonstrate the integral role that Yemen’s private sector can play in responding to crises and supporting communities in the country.

“We hope that the successful resolution of this situation will stand as an example of the importance of collaboration and bold action in support of Yemen, and serve as an inspiration to all those seeking to bring an end to the conflict and restore peace and stability to the country.”

While welcoming the news of the successful removal of oil aboard the FSO Safer and its move to the replacement vessel MOST Yemen (formerly Nautica) in a ship-to-ship transfer, António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, explained that these activities had enabled “avoiding what could have been a monumental environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.”

Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator, commented: “Today is a proud moment for the many people across the UN system as well as our donors and partners who have worked tirelessly over the past months and years to avert a disaster in a country already vulnerable following protracted conflict. There is still work to be done, but today we can say with confidence that the immediate threat of a spill has been averted.”

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While as much of the 1.14 million barrels of oil trapped on the FSO Safer as possible has been extracted, less than two per cent of the original oil remains mixed in with sediment that will be removed during the final cleaning. The UN explains that the second phase of the operation involves installing a mooring system so that the replacement vessel can remain in place.

The FSO Safer will eventually be towed to a shipyard and scrapped. To this end, the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) urged the UNDP to find a solution that would effectively address the inherent risks associated with dismantling and managing the hazardous materials that would remain on board.

These NGOs also called on the Dutch government, one of the biggest donors to the Stop Red Sea Oil Pollution operation, to follow suit and assist UNDP in identifying a suitable recycling facility by pushing for “the safe and environmentally sound” recycling of the FSO Safer.

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Furthermore, the Secretary-General reaffirmed the UN’s commitment to fully complete the operation, which has an overall cost of over $140 million, with some $20 million still needed to finish the project and remove “any remaining environmental threat to the Red Sea.” With this in mind, Guterres urged donors to step up support towards its full conclusion.

David Gressly, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, who led UN system-wide efforts on the Safer since September 2021, echoed his message: “Today is a great milestone. A remarkable global coalition came together under the UN umbrella to prevent the worst-case scenario of a catastrophic oil spill in the Red Sea. We need to finish the work the UN started.”

Moreover, Gressly reported that the oil on board the FSO Safer was in good condition, meaning that it could be sold. As this process will require negotiation between Yemen’s warring sides, the UN has offered to be a go-between, including potentially setting up a trust fund or an escrow account, but no decisions have yet been reached.

“In fact, one of the reasons we opted for this particular solution was because of the complexity either of both getting the parties to agree to the sale of the oil, but also to not have to confront the legal ownership issues because the oil is actually owned by multiple parties. So, rather than taking months or even years to resolve that problem, during which time the Safer could have sunk, we opted to get the oil off first by the time required to find a solution to the sale of the oil,” added Gressly.

The UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen claims that ordinary Yemenis are “very happy” about the completion of the oil transfer operation, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum, as “they all know that this is a real threat to the Yemeni people, so, there’s relief that it’s finally done.”

“I think, secondly, there’s hope that the sale of the oil, if it were to take place, could be of benefit to the people of Yemen as well. And then thirdly, of course, it creates a bit of momentum and anticipation for acceleration of the peace process itself. It creates more hope for that as well,” concluded Gressly.

While confirming that its subsidiary, SMIT Salvage, removed all oil from the decaying FSO Safer, Boskalis underscores that the environmental disaster in Yemen has been averted with the “ticking time bomb dismantled.”

Peter Berdowski, CEO of Boskalis, remarked: “I am very pleased that we have succeeded in removing the oil from the FSO Safer and transferring it to a modern double hulled tanker. With our salvage activities, we have once again averted a potential environmental disaster of unprecedented proportions.

Thanks in part to the efforts of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation and over two years of preparations by Boskalis, we were able to successfully execute this complex operation on behalf of the United Nations. I would like to compliment our salvage experts in particular for successfully carrying out the work under very challenging conditions in the Red Sea.”

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According to Boskalis, the remaining activities of SMIT Salvage entail the cleaning of the tanks, which is expected to take approximately one week. The FSO Safer will be prepared for transport to a green scrapping yard under the responsibility of the UN.