FSO SAFER oil spill risk

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[Last updated on 21 January 2022] 

IMO is contributing to international efforts aimed at preventing an oil spill from the deteriorating floating storage and offloading unit FSO SAFER, which is moored off the coast of Yemen. The Organization is also supporting the contingency planning efforts aimed at enhancing preparedness to mitigate the environmental impacts of a potential spill.

1. What is the current situation of the FSO SAFER?

The floating storage and offloading unit (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.   

2. What could be the extent of the environmental damage in the event of a spill?

An oil spill from the FSO SAFER would be a major humanitarian and environmental disaster. A significant spill is likely to heavily impact the north-western coastline of Yemen, including the Yemeni Islands in the Red Sea, and Kamaran Island in particular. There is also a potential for oil to drift and impact neighbouring countries, including Djibouti, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia.

The area encompasses vulnerable ecosystems, including mangroves, coral reefs and bird habitats, as well as key infrastructures such as desalination plants and fishing ports. 

The specific impacts of a spill would depend on variety of factors, such as the amount of oil spilled, the oil's weathering characteristics and the meteorological and oceanic conditions at the time. Various spill scenarios from FSO SAFER have been investigated to enhance the understanding of the potential damage to the environment.

3. What could be the impact of an oil spill for the local populations?

A major oil spill could impact many Yemeni coastal communities, who already rely on humanitarian aid to meet their basic needs. It would have a significant impact on the livelihoods and the health of the people relying on resources from the sea. 

Fisheries along the Red Sea Coast of Yemen would likely be severely impacted, leading to hardship for fishing communities and substantial economic losses. An oil spill could also severely disrupt operations at the Hudaydah port, which is the point of entry for most imported goods.  

4. What is IMO doing to prepare the response in case of a spill?

Whilst prevention efforts are the primary focus for securing FSO SAFER, adequate preparedness in the event of a spill is also essential to ensure a timely and coordinated response and mitigate the severity of impacts should there be a release.  To this end, IMO has engaged technical experts to support its contingency planning efforts aimed at enhancing preparedness within the region in the event of a spill.  This contingency planning process aims to help improve the efficiency, effectiveness and management of emergency response operations in the event of a spill from the FSO SAFER. 

Key areas of focus of these planning efforts include: identifying technical experts to assist in coordinating and managing a spill response at national and local levels; assessing the current capacity to respond to a spill; clarifying equipment and resource requirements; as well as identifying training needs for the relevant actors. 

IMO is working in close collaboration with the UN Resident Coordinator's Office for Yemen, that has oversight within the UN system on matters related to FSO SAFER, and other UN agencies, as well as the Regional Organisation for the Conservation of the Environment in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden (PERSGA) and the Government of Yemen to coordinate and support contingency planning efforts. 

5. What could be the role of IMO in the event of a spill?   

IMO is able to provide technical support to governments faced with a significant oil spill upon request. Such support may range from providing technical advice and assistance to relevant authorities and regional coordination centres; to dispensing technical assistance through the deployment of experts. 

Given the potential magnitude of a catastrophic spill from FSO SAFER and the security considerations related to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, IMO would support UN system efforts in the event of a major international response.

6. What are the current challenges in preparing for and responding to an oil spill in Yemen? 

The ongoing conflict and resulting instability in the region have a significant impact on the contingency planning work. There are challenges in gathering complete and up-to-date information from stakeholders, amongst others. The current situation would also impact the capacity to mount a response in the event of an oil spill, in view of the limited resources in the area and, more importantly, the security situation arising from the civil conflict in Yemen.  

7. What about the UN mission to assess the FSO SAFER?

A UN-led assessment mission on the FSO SAFER was scheduled to take place in 2021. Whilst it had been provisionally agreed that a UN team would board the FSO for the 30-day mission to assess its state and carry out light repairs, no agreement on the mission was reached and discussions on this option are currently on hold.

IMO will continue to participate in and provide technical input to the UN interagency work, which is led by the UN Office of the Resident Coordinator, with participation from UNDP, UN OCHA, UNOPS, OSESGY, WFP, UNICEF, IMO, and UNEP.