A UN-led operation to remove over one million barrels of crude oil from a rusting supertanker off Yemen safely concluded on Friday, August 11, 2023, preventing the immediate threat of a massive spill in the Red Sea.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the news of the successful transfer of oil aboard the FSO Safer to a replacement vessel, thus “avoiding what could have been a monumental environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.”
The FSO Safer, owned by Yemen’s national oil company, the Safer Exploration & Production Operation Company (SEPOC), was built as a supertanker in 1976 and converted a decade later into what is in effect a floating oil container.
Risk to the region
The tanker was abandoned off the Red Sea port of Hudaydah after civil war broke out in 2015. Prior to the conflict, it 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.
The UN had repeatedly warned of the danger the decrepit tanker posed to Yemen and the wider 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 of the population – rely on aid.
‘A proud moment’
Following two years of fundraising, including through a crowdfunding campaign, a UN salvage team began pumping oil from the FSO Safer onto a replacement vessel on July 25 – part of a two-track plan.
This followed preparations on-site by leading marine salvage company SMIT, a subsidiary of Boskalis, which began in May. The UN Development Programme (UNDP), which contracted SMIT, is implementing the operation.
“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,” said Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator.
“There is still work to be done, but today we can say with confidence that the immediate threat of a spill has been averted,” he added.
As much of the 1.14 million barrels of oil trapped on the FSO Safer has been extracted as possible. However, less than two per cent of the original oil remains mixed in with sediment that will be removed during the final cleaning.
The second phase of the operation involves installing a mooring system so that the replacement vessel, the Yemen, can remain in place. The FSO Safer will eventually be towed to a shipyard and scrapped.
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.
“He expresses his gratitude to the Yemeni authorities whose support has been critical to its success. Additional funding will be needed to finish the project and remove any remaining environmental threat to the Red Sea,” UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq said in a statement.
Finish the job
Mr. Guterres also thanked the many countries, corporate and philanthropic donors, as well as ordinary citizens, who contributed funding for the project. He urged donors to step up support towards its full conclusion.
The UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, David Gressly, who has led UN system-wide efforts on the Safer since September 2021, echoed his message.
“Today is a great milestone,” he said. “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.”
Hopes for peace
Speaking later on Friday to UN News, Mr. Gressly reported that the oil on board the FSO Safer was in good condition, meaning that it could be sold – a process that will require negotiation between Yemen’s warring sides.
He said 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,” he said.
“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.”
Mr. Gressly also reported that ordinary Yemenis are “very happy” that the oil transfer operation has concluded, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum.
“They all know that this is a real threat to the Yemeni people, so, there’s relief that it’s finally done,” he said.
“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.”