“UN begins complex oil tanker salvage operation to avoid ‘catastrophic’ spill in Red Sea”

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An international team began siphoning oil out of a decrepit oil tanker off the coast of Yemen on Tuesday, the United Nations chief said, a crucial step in a complex salvage operation.

In a statement, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the operation a mission “to defuse what might be the world’s largest ticking time bomb.”

For years, many organizations have warned that the neglected vessel, known as FSO Safer, may cause a major oil spill or even explode.

“In the absence of anyone else willing or able to perform this task, the United Nations stepped up and assumed the risk to conduct this very delicate operation,” Guterres said. 

The tanker carries four times as much oil as was spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska, one of the world’s worst ecological catastrophes, according to the UN.

Now, the more than 1.1 million barrels of oil stored in the tanker will be moved to another vessel the UN has purchased, Guterres said. 

The Safer is moored six kilometres from Yemen’s western Red Sea ports of Hodeidah and Ras Issa, a strategic area now embroiled in the country’s civil war.

The vessel has not been maintained for eight years and its structural integrity is compromised, making it at risk of breaking up or exploding. Seawater has entered the engine compartment, causing damage to the pipes and increasing the risk of sinking, according to internal documents obtained by The Associated Press in June 2020.

For years, the UN and governments of other countries as well as environmental groups have warned that if an oil spill — or explosion — occurs, it could disrupt global commercial shipping, causing untold damage to the global economy.

In total, the Safer salvage operation is expected to cost about $144 million US — an estimate that also includes finding a permanent storage solution for the oil. The UN says that figure is a fraction of the estimated $20 billion US it would cost to clean up an oil spill from the tanker.

The United States contributed $10 million US for the transfer and urged other countries to chip in more needed for the operation, the U.S. State Department said Tuesday.

Canada has contributed $2.5 million Cdn to the salvage mission.

The oil transfer came after months of on-site preparatory work and is scheduled to be completed in 19 days, the UN said.

The tanker Nautica that is to receive the oil, now renamed the Yemen, reached Yemen’s coast earlier this month and the salvage team managed on Saturday to safely berth it alongside the Safer.

“The transfer of the oil to the Yemen will prevent the worst-case scenario of a catastrophic spill in the Red Sea, but it is not the end of the operation,” David Gressly, UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen, said Monday.

After transferring the oil, the Yemen vessel will be connected to an undersea pipeline that brings oil from the fields, said Achim Steiner, administrator of the UN Development Program.

Steiner said the Safer tanker would be towed away to a scrapyard to be recycled.

The UN chief said about $20 million US is still needed to finish the salvage operation, including cleaning and scrapping the tanker and removing any remaining environmental threat to the Red Sea.

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United Nations Development Program Administrator Achim Steiner, seen speaking during a Thursday news conference, says a deal has been signed to secure the purchase of a large crude carrier that can help get oil off a rusting tanker stranded off the coast of Yemen. (Mary Altaffer/The Associated Press)

The United Nations (UN) announced Thursday it signed an agreement to purchase a very large vessel that can transfer more than 1 million barrels of crude now stranded in a rusting tanker off the coast of war-torn Yemen.

The deal is the first step in an eventual operation to evacuate the cargo and eliminate the threat of massive environmental damage from a possible oil spill or explosion.

Achim Steiner, administrator of the UN Development Program, told a news conference that the deal was signed with Euronav, the world’s largest independent tanker company, to secure the purchase of a large crude carrier for the endeavour.

The double-hulled carrier, found “following an intense search on an extremely stressed global market,” is expected to sail within the next month to Yemen’s Red Sea waters and park alongside the FSO Safer, he said.

“If all things go according to plan,” the ship-to-ship crude transfer would start in early May,” Steiner said.

The Japanese-made Safer was built in the 1970s and sold to the Yemeni government in the 1980s to store up to 3 million barrels of oil pumped from fields in Marib, a province in eastern Yemen.

The impoverished Arab Peninsula country has for years been engulfed in civil war.

Yemen’s conflict started in 2014 when the Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north, forcing the government to flee to the south, then to Saudi Arabia.

The following year, a Saudi-led coalition entered the war to fight the Houthis and try and restore the internationally recognized government to power.

No annual maintenance has taken place since 2015 on the ship, which is is 360 metres long with 34 storage tanks. Most crew members, except for 10 people, were pulled off the vessel after the Saudis entered the conflict.

In 2020, internal documents obtained by The Associated Press showed that seawater has entered Safer’s engine compartment, causing damage to pipes and increasing the risk of sinking. Rust has covered parts of the tanker and the inert gas that prevents the tanks from gathering inflammable gases, has leaked out.

Experts said maintenance was no longer possible because the damage to the ship is irreversible, according to an Associated Press report.

The situation has raised fears of a massive oil spill or explosion that could cause an environmental catastrophe. The UN has repeatedly warned that the tanker could release four times more oil than the notorious Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska in 1989.

Months after several countries pledged millions of dollars to the UN to salvage a decaying oil tanker in the Red Sea, the international agency is still waiting for most of the money to arrive, as time runs out to avert an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.

The United Nations in May launched an effort to raise $75 million US to pay for the removal of more than a million barrels of crude oil from the FSO Safer off Yemen’s western coast, warning the ship was at risk of disintegrating or exploding.

Such a disaster would have far-reaching effects for the countries and marine life along the Red Sea, and to global supply chains that rely on the ability to cross those waters, as well as the distribution of humanitarian aid to war-torn Yemen. The UN estimates a clean-up effort would cost at least $20 billion US.

On Wednesday, the UN said 17 countries, as well as companies and individuals, had pledged $78 million — more than enough to complete the first phase of the salvage plan. But most of the pledges had yet to be transferred to the UN, and the work could not begin until the money was received.

Canada announced a $2.5 million commitment to the operation on Sept. 6. It issued the payment to the United Nations Development Programme the following day, Global Affairs Canada told CBC News on Wednesday.

Speaking at the United Nations headquarters in New York, David Gressly, the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen, said he was confident countries would send the money by the end of September, in order for the delayed salvage operation to begin.

“While most of the money has not yet come in, most of the agreements [with donors] have now been signed, which are the prerequisite for the actual funds to be transferred,” he told reporters. “We have very hard commitments from those who’ve yet to sign contracts [that they will] do so.”

The UN did not name the countries that had yet to transfer funds or say how much money was outstanding, and ended its press conference after only a few questions from reporters.

The UN now has a very tight window to complete the four-month operation, which it had hoped to begin in the first half of 2022, warning in May that strong winds and currents in the Red Sea from September onward would increase the risk of the decrepit tanker disintegrating.

Gressly on Wednesday said he expected teams to be on the ground within a few weeks to begin preparations for the salvage work, which will take place amid a truce between warring parties in Yemen.

The salvage plan follows more than three years of urging from local environmentalists in Yemen, who warned of the risk of an ecological catastrophe from the rusting ship.

Since 1988, the vessel, owned by Yemen’s state oil company, has been used to store, transfer and export crude from the country’s oil fields. 

But after war broke out in 2015 between Yemen’s internationally recognized government and Houthi rebels, the waters where the Safer is moored became contested, and the ship fell into disrepair. Greenpeace has described it as a “ticking time bomb.”

The first three months of the salvage mission would be spent preparing the ship for offloading the oil safely, including ensuring its oil tanks could be opened without risking an explosion, as its systems for pumping inert gases into the oil chambers no longer functioned.

Hydraulic pumps would be used to transfer the oil to a temporary vessel moored alongside the Safer. The empty tanks would then be cleaned to remove any remaining oil residue and debris before the Safer is towed away and sold for scrap.

“We want to take a very careful approach to making sure that not only is oil not contaminating the bay during the transfer, but that the ship itself is fully clean before we consider it a successful operation,” Gressly said Wednesday.

He was confident the UN would be able to raise a further $38 million US it needed for a second phase of the operation, which involves finding a permanent storage solution for the oil.

In May, Global Affairs Canada told CBC News the government did not plan to give money. It did not respond to multiple requests for further information.

On Wednesday, the department said the due diligence process for international aid initiatives took longer when it involved a conflict zone.

The UN launched a public crowd-funding campaign in June in an attempt to make up the shortfall from countries’ contributions.

The Dutch government on Tuesday announced an extra €7.5 million ($10 million Cdn) for the operation, taking its total contribution to €15 million. The United States pledged $10 million US in June, following pledges from Qatar and a number of European countries. Members of the public had contributed $200,000 US, the UN said in a statement Wednesday.

The operation was set to cost less than the UN originally expected. In May, it projected it would need to raise $144 million US, but on Wednesday, it said it had found a cheaper long-term storage option, and now expected the total cost to be $113 million US.

To remove the oil from the decaying Yemeni oil tanker will cost $144M US, but Canada won’t contribute

For three years, Mohammed Al-Hakimi has issued warnings of a looming catastrophe off his country’s western coast: a decaying tanker that threatens to spill more than a million barrels of crude oil into the Red Sea.

The ship, known as the FSO Safer, has the potential to become one of the worst environmental disasters of all time, as it carries more than four times the oil that was on board the Exxon Valdez when it ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989.

International authorities warn the ship could disintegrate or explode at any time — a disaster that would have far-reaching effects for the countries and marine life along the Red Sea, and to global supply chains that rely on crossing those waters.

“It’s going to be a world catastrophe in a way,” Al-Hakimi, the founder of Yemeni environmental group Holm Akhdar, said in an interview from the country’s largest city, Sana’a.

The United Nations has so far raised just half of the $80 million US it needs to begin an emergency operation to remove the oil from a ship it describes as a “time bomb.”

It says the four-month operation must start within weeks, because strong winds and currents expected in the Red Sea from September onwards will increase the risk of the decrepit tanker disintegrating.

On Wednesday, after a fundraising conference in the Netherlands, the UN said it had commitments for $40 million US from the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Qatar, Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, Switzerland and Luxembourg, and would now turn to the private sector to try and raise further funds.

“When we have the funding, the work can begin,” David Gressly, the United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen, said in a statement.

Canada, meanwhile, has no plans to contribute to the salvage mission, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada told CBC News ahead of Wednesday’s pledging event.

“Canada is not in a position to provide funding to support the salvage of the FSO Safer at this time.”

In total, the Safer salvage operation will cost about $144 million US — an estimate that also includes finding a permanent storage solution for the oil. The UN says that figure is a fraction of the estimated $20 billion US it would cost to clean up an oil spill from the tanker.

Since 1988, the Safer — a floating oil storage and offloading vessel owned by Yemen’s state oil company — has been used to store, transfer and export crude from the country’s oil fields. 

But after war broke out in 2015 between Yemen’s internationally recognized government and Houthi rebels, the waters north of Hodeida became contested, and the Safer fell into disrepair. 

“This vessel could break up tomorrow. Every day that we wait is a gamble,” Gressly told CBC News in an interview ahead of Wednesday’s fundraising event.

“An explosion risk has become very real now, and it’s actually just a matter of time. It will fall apart — the only question is when.”

The Embassy of the Republic of Yemen in Ottawa told CBC News it has been warning international organizations and other countries about the risks from the Safer for “a very long time”.

“It is important that the world recognizes the gravity of this situation and must act together immediately … before it touches us all. It is critical that we act with the advantage of foresight rather than react in the chaos of hindsight,” the embassy said in a statement.

On Tuesday, the Houthis, who control Yemen’s western Red Sea ports, criticized the UN for “not presenting an operational plan” to maintain the Safer — more than two months after agreeing to the transfer of its oil to another vessel, The Associated Press reported. The UN did not immediately respond to the Houthi statement but has previously accused the rebels of delaying the ship’s maintenance plans.

Gressly confirmed that the operation’s first few months will be spent preparing the precarious vessel for offloading the oil safely, a process the UN hopes will begin within weeks.

“It’s a lot of work required, because it’s in such bad condition and very dangerous.”

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First, the salvage crew will board and inspect the Safer to check the state of its pumps, valves and other systems, the UN said in a video released online on Wednesday.

It said it expects the ship’s oil tanks will be unsafe, “due to accumulated cargo vapours.”

A maritime salvage expert who is not involved in the operation, explained to CBC News that the ship could be at risk of exploding if a mix of hydrogen and rust in its tanks comes into contact with fresh air when the tank lids are opened.

“It can lead to an explosion very, very rapidly, which means the entire operation can be jeopardized within a matter of minutes,” said Nadeem Anwar, a marine salvage expert and senior lecturer at the Warsash Maritime School at Solent University in Southampton, England.

The video released by the UN indicated that salvors would use portable equipment to pump inert gases into the oil chambers in order to keep their contents stable. 

“Without inert gases, the operation gets that much more risky,” Anwar explained.

Once the tanks were deemed safe, their lids would be opened and hydraulic pumps would be lowered in to transfer the oil to a temporary vessel moored alongside the Safer.

The empty tanks would then be cleaned to remove any remaining oil before the Safer is towed away and sold for scrap.

The oil will remain on the temporary vessel until the UN finds a more permanent storage facility, where the oil will be held “until the conflict [between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels] is basically over, and a peace settlement is in place where we can actually sell the oil and get rid of the problem once and for all,” Gressly said.

While groups on the ground in Yemen are relieved that a salvage plan could soon be put in motion, they are worried that more has not been done to prepare people living on the coast for the potential of a spill or explosion before, or during, the operation.

Al-Hakimi said his organization has been trying to raise awareness among farmers and fishers on how to respond if they see oil in the water — including by sharing information in local radio broadcasts — but he wants the UN to set up a hotline locals can call if the FSO Safer starts leaking.

The environmental consequences of a spill would stretch far beyond Yemen’s borders, devastating coral reefs, a turtle nesting site and other marine life in the Red Sea, a Greenpeace spokesperson said.

It’s a unique area with unique marine life and … biodiversity, including marine mammals, dugongs, mangroves, whales and dolphins, too,” said Paul Horsman, who is leading the Greenpeace team responding to the FSO Safer.

Yemen’s already dire humanitarian situation would also be made significantly worse by an environmental disaster, according to modelling carried out by ACAPS, a non-profit organization that provides independent humanitarian analysis to UN agencies, governments and other groups.

More than 20 million Yemenis — about 70 percent of the country’s population — rely on billions of dollars in international aid, most of which flows into the country via the western port of Hodeida. If an oil spill occurs, that critical gateway would likely close for two to three months.

A spill would also disrupt drinking water for up to 10 million people, limit fuel supplies for electricity, transportation and health care, as well as cause hundreds of thousands of farmers, fishermen and others to lose their livelihoods, the ACAPS modelling found.

Likewise, an explosion or fire would cause major air pollution over an even greater area of western Yemen, posing a “significant health risk” to vulnerable people in a country where most residents have no access to basic medical services.

“[Either scenario] could only exacerbate the situation of the Yemeni people further, and it’s something that can definitely be avoided, given enough response to this potential environmental disaster,” said Steve Penson, a data scientist at ACAPS.

“We know the economic impacts, the social impacts, health impacts — it’s been warned about, and I think there’s a potential here to really help avoid something like this from occurring.”

The economic impacts would also stretch well beyond Yemen and its neighbours: the UN warns an oil spill could disrupt billions of dollars in global shipping through a key passageway to the Suez Canal.

“Think of the Ever Given,” Gressly told journalists in New York earlier this month, referring to the massive container ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal last March, blocking hundreds of ships from passing through.

That’s just one of the reasons why Al-Hakimi, the local environmental activist, said the world should care about preventing the Safer from causing its own disaster.

“There’s two choices: either a global movement and a global support for this, or … we wait for catastrophe and we wait for the oil spill,” he said. “And then, we can’t fix what’s broken.”

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