No resolution to prevent risks of abandoned tanker in Yemen

The FSO Safer is moored five nautical miles off the coast of Ras Isa on Yemen’s west coast. Credit: Conflict and Environment Observatory

Experts have said there is no resolution in sight for resolving the risks of an abandoned floating storage and offloading facility (FSO), loaded with an estimated 1.1million barrels of oil, currently caught in between the Saudi-Yemen conflict and civil war. There are concerns that the vessel could explode or create a massive pollution event.

Sophia Bellas, analyst at Dryad Global, told SAS that the political situation is creating difficulties in resolving the issue. “Unfortunately, with Houthi units and the Saudi-led coalition locked in conflict on an on/off basis, there is just not the diplomatic breathing space for now to deal with this,” said Bellas. “What would change this is if a ceasefire could be implemented and hold into the longer term, but so far in Yemen this has not been forthcoming”.

The United Nations (UN) have made various attempts to negotiate with the Houthi rebels for access to the FSO. “It is being used as a bargaining chip by the Houthis, which is extremely short-sighted as an oil spill will damage the Red Sea and hence their own interests,” Hans Tino Hansen CEO Risk Intelligence told SAS.

The Houthi rebels want to sell the oil onboard the FSO to fund their campaign at market value said Hansen, which they estimate to be around USD40 million. “The strategy is short-sighted as the potential outcome for the Red Sea and the economy connected to the Red Sea, including fishing, is many times worse than the USD40 million, if it is possible to quantify fully the total damages in the long term,” said Hansen.

Lars Bergqvist, maritime security advisor LB Marine Consultancy, said that the cargo onboard the FSO Safer is divided into different tanks and due to the condition onboard the crude oil will most likely start leaking out. “The crude oil will be seeping out, not an instant spill like in the case of a grounding. If the seeping of oil starts, the pressure on the international community will be immense, and we will certainly see some action,” he said.

One of the key concerns lies in the vessels’ age; it was originally built in 1976 as a single hulled oil tanker and converted into an FSO in 1988. Since the civil war broke out in Yemen in March 2015 the FSO, Safer, was seized by Houthi rebels who left the vessel unattended to corrode in the Red Sea off Ras Isa, Yemen.

Due to the lack of maintenance, in the last five years seawater has entered the engine room of the FSO, which has damaged pipelines and increased the risk of sinking, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. The documents also found an increased chance of explosion as inert gas, that would prevent the tanks from gathering inflammable gases, has leaked out due to rust. If continued to be left unattended it has the potential to explode and cause an environmental disaster, according to the UN.

The UN have already stated that the situation could create a worse pollution and environmental incident than the Exxon Valdez spill, which polluted over 1,600 km of Alaskan coastline on 24 March 1989

Following renewed international pressure, the Houthi rebel government announced on 3 July that a repair team will be sent to the tanker to carry out works. However, experts such as Ian Ralby, founder of IR Consilium, a maritime security resource, told AP that a salvage team is needed given the excessive corrosion onboard. “It is difficult to assess the Houthis plans on a repair team and therefore impossible to comment on it as of now,” concluded Hansen.