United Nations, United States (AFP):
Transferring more than a million barrels of oil from an abandoned tanker anchored off the shore of Yemen comes with “palpable risks” — but doing nothing could lead to a devastating oil spill, a senior UN official has said.
“If something were to go wrong, indeed, many questions will be asked,” said Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Development Program, which is in charge of salvage of the FSO Safer.
But “walking away is not an option,” he said in an interview.
The 47-year-old ship is carrying four times as much oil as that which spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska, one of the world’s worst ecological catastrophes.
And the Safer hasn’t been serviced since Yemen’s civil war broke out in 2015 — left abandoned off the rebel-held port of Hodeida, a critical gateway for shipments into the war-torn country, which is heavily dependent on foreign aid.
To unload the Safer’s oil — a process set to begin in less than two weeks — the United Nations had to purchase its own super-tanker. Private company SMIT Salvage will pump the oil from the Safer to the UN-owned ship, called Nautica, and then tow away the empty tanker.
The first images sent from the site this week revealed “an old, rusty tanker,” Steiner said.
In the meantime, the Safer remains a ticking time bomb.
“The most catastrophic scenario could be that the vessel explodes or that indeed it falls apart, it develops some major oil spill,” Steiner said.
A spill — “increasingly viewed as an inevitable risk” — could cost up to $20 billion to clean up, to say nothing of the environmental and human toll, and the UN is negotiating with an insurance consortium to insure the operation.
One of the first steps will be securing the ship, whose onboard systems are no longer operational. Then, SMIT Salvage will need “to pump inert gas into the tanks, which significantly reduces the risk of an explosion or fire.”
But the world body is still $29 million short in what it estimates will be a more than $140 million project.
Even when the oil is pumped out — a process that could be finished by early or mid-July — Steiner won’t be able to rest easy.
The job will only finish when the Safer is finally towed to a scrap yard.
“There could be significant revenues in the tens of millions of dollars” if it’s not contaminated by sea water or other substances, Steiner said.
“The oil… could actually be sold so that that revenue could be used to help people in Yemen who are desperate, fighting for their survival.”