FSO SAFER oil spill risk

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[Last updated on 11 January 2021] 

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 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 in the tanks.  

The situation is particularly complex due to conflict in the region and the 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 environmental disaster. A significant spill is likely to heavily impact the northwestern 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 a number of 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 seasonal conditions when it occurs. A risk impact analysis for a potential release of pollution (from an oil spill or a fire) from the FSO SAFER has been prepared by RiskAware for the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. This analysis showed that the release of the entire cargo could impact most of the western coast of Yemen, with slight seasonal variations. Additional spill scenarios are being 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 would be catastrophic for millions of Yemenis, 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. This means the impact of a spill could be felt by millions of Yemenis, including people living far from the coastline.  

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 which are 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 in these planning efforts include: identifying the teams that can coordinate and manage 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. More funding will be required for the capacity-building work.

The UN is working in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, including the Regional Organisation for the Conservation of the Environment in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden (PERSGA), the Government of Yemen and the SAFER corporation on this contingency planning effort.  

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

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

IMO would remain ready to backstop PERSGA’s efforts by providing practical support and assistance. PERSGA, through its Emergency Mutual Aid Centre in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (EMARSGA), is expected to play a key coordination role and facilitate the response efforts, including the management of international offers of assistance and the deployment of specialized equipment in the region, in line with the 1982 Protocol Concerning the Regional Cooperation in Combating Pollution by Oil and other Harmful Substances in Cases of Emergency.

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 is scheduled to take place in 2021. In line with the scope of the mission that was agreed in November 2020, a UN team will board the FSO for 30 days to assess its state and carry out light repairs. However, the scope of the mission does not include offloading the oil currently on board the FSO. 

The timing of deployment will depend on a number of factors including the market availability of the needed equipment and staff, shipping times and routes, transit weather conditions and funding availability. 

IMO will continue to provide technical input to this UN interagency process, which is led by the UN Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen (OSESGY), with participation from UN OCHA, UNOPS, IMO and UNEP.