Tackling old oil tanker off Yemen is priority for US, envoy says

Tim Lenderking tells 'The National' that avoiding a crisis in the Red Sea is crucial as UN reaches its funding goal for oil-salvage

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The deteriorating FSO Safer oil tanker that is threatening to create an environmental catastrophe along Yemen's Red Sea coast is a "priority" for the US, a top US official said on Wednesday.

And the US special envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking, called on other countries to raise more funds to avert the disaster.

Mr Lenderking said 17 countries raised $75 million to prevent an oil spill, but the UN needed another $38m to create a secure oil storage into which the Safer's cargo can be pumped.

“Even [President Joe Biden] raised this issue in his visit to Saudi Arabia. That's how serious we are," Mr Lenderking told The National at a side event at this year's UN General Assembly.

While governments and businesses have pledged funds to the UN for the salvage operation, they have yet to hand over the money.

“When you look at this problem in relation to everything else that's going on in the world and the demands for funding for various humanitarian crises, I think this has really gathered a lot of steam just in the last few months," Mr Lenderking said.

Without naming countries, he said he would also like to see “Arab countries who have a stake in this problem come forward".

"That's an ongoing dialogue that we're having. This isn't the end of the process and there are still opportunities for people to contribute, companies and governments to contribute".

US special envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking in April. Reuters

Stranded in Yemen’s war zone, the Safer supertanker has been moored in the Red Sea since 1987, and recently it has degraded to the point of collapse.

More than 1 million barrels of oil are stored in its tanks.

The UN has been raising funds since May 2022 to carry out a rescue operation and prevent what could become one of the world’s worst oil spills in history.

The Exxon Valdez spilled about a quarter of that volume when it ran aground in Alaska, in 1989.

The 45-year-old tanker threatens not only the ecosystems of the Red Sea but also the lives of millions of people.

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels control Yemen’s western Red Sea ports, including Ras Isa, just six kilometres from where the Safer is moored.

The UN has been negotiating with the rebel group for years to try to get experts on the tanker to examine it.

David Gressly, one of the central figures engaged in the UN’s attempt to solve the Safer crisis, said salvage work will begin on the vessel in a few weeks.

"There will be a period of few weeks for mobilisation, followed by a four-months operation to actually stabilise the existing vessel to transfer the oil into the second vessel," Mr Gressly said.

Mr Lenderking also welcomed the continuing truce in Yemen and said the various parties were working on extending it to October 2.

"That's what every country we've spoken to this week … that has a stake in the conflict has supported," he said.

With additional reporting by Nada AlTaher.

Updated: September 21, 2022, 9:06 PM