FSO Safer oil spill avoided by crew who did 'everything humanly possible' to prevent it

Replacing decaying tanker with another vessel is a temporary measure not a solution, maritime expert says

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A six-person skeleton crew on board the decaying FSO Safer stuck off the coast of Yemen since the civil war began in 2014 has done “everything humanly possible” to prevent an oil spill, an expert told The National.

The international community breathed a sigh of relief after the UN gained access to the tanker after nearly a decade of trying to assess its structural integrity, especially when it was found that the ship was in better condition than initially thought.

Part of that is because of the skeleton crew that has been keeping the ship intact, maritime law expert Ian Ralby said.

Mr Ralby has provided consulting services to the parties involved and is in touch with the people who have been keeping the ship in shape.

“There were a couple of near misses – one in April 2019 when part of the hosepipe system fell into the sea,” he said. “The Safer Exploration and Production Operations Company (Sepoc) team did a great job to make sure it didn't cause a catastrophic spill or land on the pipeline when they had to cut the hosepipe.

“They did another amazing job when on May 27, 2020, the pipes burst in the engine room and could've caused damage to the superstructure hull or caused part of the vessel to sink or anchor chains to break.”

Sepoc is a Yemen state-owned company that owned and operated the infrastructure for oil export.


Instances like these, Mr Ralby said, are why the crew should be praised, especially in light of the difficult conditions they have faced in recent years under the watchful eye of armed Houthi militants.

One of the most effective steps the crew took, Mr Ralby and a former high-level Sepoc employee told The National, came when the FSO Safer was converted from a single-hull to a double-hull ship in 2019.

“There was a threat of the oxidation of air compartments and accessibility between the hull and the oil. The crew pumped the oil from the exterior compartments of the ship and filled up the inner compartments, so that instead of 34 half-empty compartments, we had fully filled inner compartments,” Mr Ralby said.

These measures cut the risk of the hull being punctured by a landmine, for example, causing a leak.

Offloading oil plan a 'temporary measure'

The Nautica arrives to take 1.14 million barrels of crude oil from the FSO Safer. EPA

Environmentalists may be celebrating the transfer of the Safer's one million barrels of oil to a vessel in better shape, but the plan still leaves much to be desired. The UN and Houthi group, the main two parties involved in the move, have yet to agree what will happen to the oil, meaning the vessel could stay floating off the coast of Yemen for years to come.

In 2014 a project to develop Ras Isa port, where the FSO Safer is moored, into an oil terminal was more than half complete. But when war between the government and Houthi rebels broke out, the project stopped in its tracks.

Ahmed Kulaib was general manager at Sepoc when the Houthis took over the capital Sanaa in 2014. Speaking to The National in June, Mr Kulaib said the more sensible plan would have been to complete that project and take the oil from the FSO Safer to the newly completed terminal, instead of replacing the Safer with the VLCC Nautica, which is about to begin a two-week ship-to-ship transfer of oil.

“The project was supposed to be handed over in November 2015, and was to be a replacement to the FSO Safer where import and export would take place,” Mr Kulaib added.

Mr Ralby said ideally that would have been the case, but in 2020, when the now ongoing UN plan was proposed, the circumstances in Yemen were different.

The Nautica is to begin a ship-to-ship transfer of oil. Reuters

“The situation now is a lot less threatening than it was in 2020 and a lot of the contextual issues are a bit calmer,” he said. “Now, we don't have a pandemic, oil futures were negative and the Houthis were vying for control of Marib.”

The price of oil plunged in 2020 after the outbreak of Covid-19, reaching historic lows as the market suddenly became oversaturated.

Today, Yemen is in a relative state of calm after a UN-brokered ceasefire between the warring parties expired without a return to violence. Since then, there have been at least two rounds of prisoner exchanges between the Yemeni government, the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition fighting against the rebels.

So in 2020, replacing the FSO Safer with a seaworthy tanker seemed like a viable option even if it is not the best option today, Mr Ralby said.

The National has contacted the local UN office and the UN Resident and Humanitarian Co-ordinator of Yemen's office for comment on an alternative plan and current progress on where the oil might end up.

“The UN is implementing its 2020 plan and does not have the follow-through planned out for how to get the oil off the water and resolve tensions,” Mr Ralby said.

Replacing the Safer with another tanker is therefore “a temporary measure, not a solution”, he said.

Updated: July 20, 2023, 3:37 AM