FSO SAFER oil spill risk - addressing the threat


[Last updated on 09 March 2023] 

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 supporting the contingency planning efforts aimed at enhancing preparedness to mitigate the environmental impacts of a potential spill, as well as providing technical input and support to UNDP Yemen on matters related to the UNDP "Operational Plan".

Since fundraising efforts began in May, 2022, US$82 million of the estimated US$113 million required has been donated. The total amount is budgeted to allow for both the urgent transfer of the oil from the FSO and installation of safe long-term replacement capacity for the vessel (Read more: UN News). 

The UN is currently carrying out preparatory work for the operation. The next critical steps are the finalization of the  detailed operational plan with international experts and a specialized salvage agency that will be undertaking the work.

As a key part of this project, an Oil Spill Contingency Planning Working Group continues to make advances in finalizing both a National Oil Spill Contingency Plan and a coordinated UN-level Strategic Contingency Plan. Table top exercises for both plans will be carried out before the operation begins. The communications channels, reporting procedures and decision-making steps contained in the plans will be tested. In-country capacity building by the UN and other international experts continues.

Donate to the UN-coordinated plan

Click here: un.org/StopRedSeaSpill/donate 

  • FSO SAFER United Nations-Coordinated Proposal Explainer (11 October 2022)
  • IMO Secretary-General welcomes FSO Safer milestone (22 September 2022)
  • A pledging event on 11 May 2022, hosted by the Government of the Netherlands and the United Nations, marked the start in the effort to raise the $144 million that the plan requires, including the $80 million for the emergency operation.   
  • Information on the plan to transfer the oil from the FSO SAFER can be found here - includes Pledging form / Explainer / Operational Plan / Oil Spill Trajectory Modelling

  • IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim has urged full support for the plan, to avert disaster (message here, video below).

  • IMO urges all stakeholders to pledge generously to support the planned FSO SAFER operation (download Circular Letter No.4561, 18 May 2022)


IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim message

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 is supporting contingency planning efforts aimed at enhancing preparedness at the national level 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 and implementing training programmes with the relevant stakeholders. 

IMO is working in close collaboration with the UN Resident Coordinator's Office for Yemen and the UNDP Yemen Office, which has direct responsibility within the UN system on matters related to FSO SAFER, and other UN agencies. 

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.  

IMO and UNDP are supporting contingency planning workshops to strengthen Yemen's oil spill response capability. Following the first workshop in Sana'a in February 2022, the second set of workshops were held in Aden in March 2022, focussing on contingency planning and shorelines response management. 

The workshops aimed to address current capacity to respond to a spill from FSO SAFER. They assist in clarifying equipment and resource requirements; developing response strategies; and addressing the topic of waste management. The information gathered will serve to identify further training needs for the respective authorities and will allow for the updating of the country's national oil spill contingency plan. The workshops were coordinated by UNDP Yemen, funded by IMO's Integrated Technical Cooperation Programme, with technical support provided by IMO.

7. What is the current plan for the FSO SAFER?

A United Nations-coordinated plan aims to address the threat. This plan covers two tracks, which will run simultaneously and provides for installing a long-term replacement for the decrepit tanker.

Following an emergency operation to transfer the oil to a safe temporary vessel, thus eliminating any immediate threat, there will be an installation of a catenary anchor leg mooring (CALM) buoy to which the replacement vessel will be tethered, and the towing of the FSO Safer for safe recycling (read more here).

To ensure the oil can be safely transferred, the continuous operation will begin with work aboard the FSO Safer, including inspections and the pumping of inert gas into its tanks to reduce the risk of explosion.

Due diligence on the salvage company has been completed. With UNDP expediting the process, the UN expects that the company will be under contract shortly and that the company will send a team to Yemen by December 2023 to complete the operational plan. UNDP has contracted a maritime broker that is researching suitable replacement vessels for the FSO SAFER for procurement.

Latest UN statements 

9 March 2023: United Nations Takes Major Step Forward to Prevent Catastrophic Oil Spill in Red Sea as UN Development Programme Signs Agreement to Purchase Oil Tanker

11 October 2022: FSO SAFER United Nations-Coordinated Proposal Explainer

22 September 2022: IMO Secretary-General welcomes FSO Safer milestone(Read more: UN News).

21 September 2022: Yemen: Marking ‘significant milestone’, UN says stricken tanker salvage operation can begin

11 May 2022: A pledging event on 11 May 2022, hosted by the Government of the Netherlands and the United Nations, marked the start in the effort to raise the $144 million that the plan requires, including the $80 million for the emergency operation.  

9 April 2022: UN unveils plan to prevent stricken oil tanker disaster off Yemen coast (read more here).

7 March 2022: The authorities in Sana’a and the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, David Gressly, signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a framework for cooperation on the UN-coordinated proposal to resolve the long-standing threat by the FSO Safer tanker. (Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General).

15 February 2022: Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mr. Martin Griffiths - Statement to the Security Council on Yemen (Download statement)  - notes "recent progress in efforts to resolve the Safer tanker issue, including an agreement in principle to a UN-coordinated proposal to shift the oil to another ship".

5 February 2022: UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator welcomes progress on FSO Safer proposal (Download statement) - notes support for a UN-coordinated proposal to shift the million barrels of oil onboard the vessel to another ship.