IMO wants more financial help to prevent oil spills from degrading FSO unit off Yemen

International Maritime Organization (IMO) Secretary-General Kitack Lim has urged further financial support for an UN-coordinated operational plan to address the threat of a major oil spill from the floating storage and offloading unit FSO Safer, moored off Yemen, after a pledging event in The Hague saw donors pledging US$33 million in new funding. 

“In the face of an impending environmental disaster, we must do all we can to prevent it. We must act now,” Lim said. “The time is now. The risks are high. We must act to avert disaster.” 

IMO has been supporting contingency planning efforts in the region to prepare for a possible spill from FSO SAFER and to limit the impacts should one occur. An oil spill from FSO Safer would be a humanitarian and environmental disaster, with huge economic impacts for the shipping and maritime industry throughout the region. 

The plan to mitigate the risk by transferring the oil to a safe temporary vessel needs financial resources, Lim said. 

There is now $40 million available for the operation, which includes previously committed funds. The decaying floating storage and offloading unit is moored off the coast of Yemen and holds around a million barrels of oil. It could break apart or explode at any time. 

The pledging event, hosted by the Government of the Netherlands and the United Nations, marked the start in the effort to raise the US$144 million that the full plan requires, including US$80 million for the emergency operation to transfer the oil to a safe temporary vessel. Also critical to the plan’s success is the installation of a long-term replacement capacity.

The FSO SAFER is located approximately 4.8 nautical miles off the coast of Yemen. It was originally built as an ultra-large crude carrier (ULCC) in Japan in 1976 and converted to a FSO in 1986. Since 1988, it has been moored at Ras Isa where, prior to the escalation of the conflict in 2015, it had been receiving, storing and exporting crude oil flowing from the Marib oil fields. The FSO SAFER is owned by Yemen’s national oil company, the Safer Exploration & Production Operation Company (SEPOC).

Due to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, all production and export operations related to FSO SAFER have been suspended, but an estimated 150,000 MT (nearly 1.1 million barrels) of crude oil remain onboard. This corresponds to four times the amount spilled during the Exxon Valdez incident in 1989, even though circumstances differ greatly. 

The FSO has not been inspected or maintained since 2015 and has been out of class since 2016, leading to serious concerns about its integrity. It is understood there is currently no oil leaking from the unit, but it is considered that the risk of an oil spill from the FSO SAFER is increasing as its structure, equipment and operating systems continue to deteriorate. 

The main risks associated with the FSO are the possible structural failure of the unit due to the lack of maintenance that could result in a leak from storage tanks due to a fracture forming on the hull or as a large release due to an explosion from the build-up of flammable gases.

The situation is particularly complex due to conflict in the region and the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.   

Photo credit: iStock/ ufokim

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