UN buys ship to begin removing oil from decaying tanker off Yemen

Long-sought operation to avert spill that could decimate Red Sea coastal communities and marine life follows deal with Iran-backed Houthi rebels, drawn-out fundraising campaign

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

The FSO Safer in an undated photo. (Courtesy: Safer Exploration and Production Operations)
The FSO Safer in an undated photo. (Courtesy: Safer Exploration and Production Operations)

The United Nations has announced that it is buying a vessel to remove more than a million barrels of oil from a disintegrating supertanker in the Red Sea, bringing hope that a potentially disastrous oil spill might be averted.

The FSO Safer has been described as a ticking time bomb because of fears it could eventually explode, break apart, or spring a leak, devastating coastal communities, marine life, and international shipping routes.

The 45-year-old ship, used as a floating storage platform, is holding more than four times the amount of oil as was spilled during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, one of the world’s worst ecological catastrophes

The vessel has been languishing off the coast of Yemen since war broke out in 2015 between government forces backed by Saudi Arabia, and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

The Houthis were accused of holding the ship hostage as a bargaining tool, preventing salvage experts from going on board until last year. They agreed to allow the oil to be offloaded on the condition that they keep the rights to the resource.

On Thursday, the UN Development Program announced a deal with shipping company Euronav to buy a ship that will remove the oil from the decrepit tanker.

That marked the culmination of a long campaign during which the UN sought donors to fund the operation, even launching a $5 million crowdfunding campaign.

David Gressly, the United Nations’ resident and humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, warned last summer that if the oil leaked into the sea, it could potentially be the fifth largest oil spill from a tanker in history, with the clean-up costs alone reaching $20 billion.

Development Program Administrator Achim Steiner said last week that the purchase of the new vessel marked “the beginning of the operational phase of the UN-coordinated plan to safely remove the oil,” in what would be “a very challenging and complex operation.”

The replacement vessel is currently being modified in drydock and is expected to get to the FSO Safer in early May.

The UN Development Program has contracted with a marine salvage company, SMIT, to remove the oil and get the FSO Safer ready to be towed to a salvage yard.

Prof. Maoz Fine of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences (IUI) in Eilat, a Red Sea coral expert, said he was “very happy to see progress being made with respect to one of the greatest and most immediate threats to precious coral reefs in the Red Sea.”

“The longer we wait, the more the risk involved with removing the threat [of an oil spill] grows,” he added. “This operation is of global importance to humanity.”

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