New report brings environmental threat of FSO Safer back into headlines

A research paper released early last week has brought back to public attention the case of the abandoned FSO Safer off Yemen’s Red Sea coast, virtually abandoned since 2015 with a hull that is getting more and more fragile.

Negotiations to offload the vessel of its 1.1m barrels of Marib light crude have been continuing for months – they are now being led by the UN Security Council – but the lack of urgency is causing concern. There is currently no expected date for a resolution.

The possibility of a spill was said to be “increasingly likely”. The dilapidated FSO Safer is single-hulled. Water entered the engine room in May 2020 through a seawater-pipe leak, and the vessel’s fire extinguishing system is non-operational. A spill could occur due to a leak or combustion. A leak could arise through continued deterioration of the vessel’s hull or by a breach of the hull due to inclement weather; combustion could occur through build-up of volatile gases aboard the vessel or direct attack on the vessel.

The FSO Safer came under the control of Houthi rebels at the start of Yemen’s civil war and has been something of a political pawn ever since. Unfortunately at the same time it is a ticking environmental time bomb. A serious oil spill would impact the livelihoods of an estimated 28m people in the region.

By way of comparison, the amount of oil on the vessel is about four times the 260,000 barrels that spilled from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989, one of the largest environmental disasters of the 20th century.

The UN Security Council claims that Houthi rebels have deliberately delayed a technical assessment of the tanker.

The research paper from a team of researchers from Harvard, Stanford and UC Berkeley simulated the Safer oil spill over a variety of weather conditions, along with the expected spread in the Red Sea region.

The team found that all of Yemen’s fuel imported through its key Red Sea ports – Hudaydah and Salif – would be disrupted, while more than 93% of Yemen’s Red Sea fisheries would be hit. A major oil spill would also threaten the clean water supply for about nine million people, as desalinization plants would be contaminated.

“If the spill spreads unmitigated for three weeks, oil will probably impede passage throughout the Gulf of Aden and could reach ports as far as Eritrea and Saudi Arabia,” the research paper said.

It was estimated that, for every month of Red Sea port closure, delivery of 200,000 tonnes of fuel for Yemen would be disrupted, which was more than a third of the divided country’s fuel needs.

Port closures in the Red Sea would also lead to severe food aid disruptions.

The researchers noted that these were just the short-term impacts – the long-term and global impacts of a potential spill could be difficult to model.

“The public health impacts of a spill from the oil tanker Safer are expected to be catastrophic, particularly for Yemen”, the researchers said.