The hull of the Exxon Valdez ruptured when it hit a reef off the coast of Alaska on 24 March 1989. The oil tanker, owned by the Exxon Shipping Company, spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The result was that it caused the world’s biggest maritime environmental disaster.
In terms of volume of oil released it is second to the Deepwater Horizon spill of 20 April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, but in terms of damage it is the worst by far. Despite a clean-up that went on for years, less than 10% of the oil was recovered.
Now, the Floating Storage And Offloading Vessel Safer (yes, that’s its name) is sitting off the coast of Yemen, rusting with 1.2 million barrels of crude oil in its tanks. That’s 50.4 million US gallons of oil, or more than four times the amount on the Exxon Valdez.
The FSO Safer lies 15° 07.0′ N, 042° 36.0′ E at the Ras Isa Marine Terminal (YERAI) between Yemen and Eritrea – and it has been there since 1988, rusting and abandoned. And since 2015 it has been a pawn in a game of chicken between Iranian-back Houthi rebels and just about everyone else. The Houthis want payment for the oil. The UN wants to avoid an ecological disaster.
Apart from the ecological damage at stake, to the south is the narrow Bab-El-Mandeb Strait (‘The Gate of Lamentations’ in Arabic) that gives out into the Gulf of Aden. Via the Suez Canal it is the shortest trade route between the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the rest of East Asia. It is one of the world’s major trade routes.
So how is this going to play out? The Houthis agreed to let UN inspectors in, and then changed their minds. And meanwhile the hulk rusted on.
For months and months, and now for years – the IMO (an agency of the United Nations responsible for regulating shipping) has been trying to put a plan in place to try to make the SFO Safer safe or to deal with a leak if there is one. It reads like a bad dream. How could this be going on for so long. The Security Council Report for April this year reads:
There has been progress towards resolving the threat posed by the FSO Safer, the vessel moored off the Houthi-held port of Ras Issa in the Red Sea that is at risk of a major oil spill or explosion. On 5 March, the UN signed a memorandum of understanding with the Houthis and the Fahem Group (one of Yemen’s largest import companies) to transfer the oil on the Safer to a vessel that would replace the ageing tanker. The memorandum notes that the plan is contingent on donor funding and could entail an interim ship to hold the oil until a suitable replacement vessel for the Safer is acquired.
The United Nations has been around cap in hand to every nation it thinks might have deep enough pockets to help pay to offload the oil. The nations say they have contributed as much as they can. The UN is still millions – maybe $20 million short. It has gone around cap in hand to individuals – and still there isn’t enough to pay to stop this ticking time bomb of a worldwide ecological disaster.