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Abandoned oil tanker off Yemen thought to be explosion and oil spill risk by UN experts

23 July 2019

An oil storage vessel moored off the coast of Yemen caught between both factions in the country’s civil war is corroding rapidly and without urgent maintenance could explode and create an environmental disaster in the Red Sea, according to United Nations experts.  

Representative image: Shutterstock
Representative image: Shutterstock

The ‘SAFER’ floating storage and offloading (FSO) vessel, a converted 400,000 tonne displacement supertanker used as the marine terminal for a pipeline from Yemen’s Marib onshore oilfield since 1988, is moored seven kilometres outside the Red Sea port of Ras Isa, north of Hodeidah.

In 2015 the area was captured from the UN and Saudi-backed Yemen government by Houthi rebels, supported by Iran, and since then the FSO, with a cargo of over 1m barrels of oil, has not been maintained or inspected. The main fear is that gases that have built up in the vessel’s storage tanks could explode, releasing huge quantities of crude into the Red Sea.

The Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), which has been monitoring the unfolding story, said that in August 2018, the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) posted a tender for a project to assess the safety of the vessel. The background documentation for the tender provided worrying insights into its condition, CEOBS said.

As the FSO’s diesel fuel had run out, its boilers had stopped producing inert gas. FSOs and tankers produce inert gas to fill the voids above the oil in their storage tanks. This is to reduce the risk of explosion from the volatile gases released from the oil they carry. Without replacement, it was thought likely that the tanks would have a significant volume of potentially explosive gases inside.

The note also drew attention to the general lack of maintenance, and with it a deterioration in the vessel, its machinery and in its floating oil export hose.

Mark Lowcock, the UN humanitarian coordinator, told the UN security council in June that an inspection team had again been refused permissions by Houthis to visit the vessel.

Lowcock said: “If the tanker ruptures or explodes, we could see the coastline polluted all along the Red Sea. Depending on the time of year and water currents, the spill could reach from Bab-el-Mandeb to the Suez Canal, and potentially as far as the strait of Hormuz.”

With restricted water circulation and delicate marine ecosystems, the Red Sea, home of corals and 600 species of fish and invertebrates, is seen as particularly vulnerable to oil pollution.

The two sides in the conflict blame each other for failing to reach a solution about what to do about the ship and its valuable cargo.

The Houthis want guarantees that they will be able to control the revenues from the oil on the ship valued at $80m, which the UN-recognised Yemen government has vetoed. The latter have suggested towing the vessel to Bahrain for repairs, which the Houthis will not allow.

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