Rusting to catastrophe

In 1987, the ship Esso Japan was converted into a storage vessel and renamed ‘Safer’. She was moored off the coast of Yemen in 1988, owned by the Yemeni government through its national oil company, and used to store oil.

Against that background, do you remember the Exxon Valdez that ruptured when it hit a reef off the coast of Alaska?

The oil tanker owned by the Exxon Shipping Company, spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989, and it caused the world’s biggest maritime environmental disaster.

In terms of volume of oil released it is second to the Deepwater Horizon spill 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 fast forward to today, and just so we are sure we are comparing apples with apples, that was 11 million gallons of crude oil that leaked out of the Exxon Valdez.

In the oil industry, a barrel is defined as 42 US gallons, or 35 imperial gallons.

Well, the Floating Storage And Offloading Vessel Safer has 1.2 million barrels of crude oil in its tanks, and it is rusting away. That’s 50.4 million US gallons of oil, or more than four times the amount on the Exxon Valdez.

Since 2015 the vessel 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 – and one of the world’s major trade routes. 

The Houthis agreed to let UN inspectors in, and then changed their minds. And meanwhile the hulk continued to rust. Then the parties did a deal, but it costs money to pay for the oil and to offload it. So the UN asked for the money to do the job. That was two years ago.

Update June 2022

And now in June 2022, with the FSO Safer becoming unsafer by the day, the United Nations is passing around the begging bowl, asking the public to join in an make up the five million dollar shortfall because the national governments of the world’s countries have not been able to dig deep enough into their pockets. The five million will mean the UN can make a start, but the actual shortfall is twenty million dollars. So somewhere down the line they are going to need more money. And meanwhile, the vessel edges nearer to breaking up.

What a sad mess.