Over A Million Barrels Of Oil In A Rusting Hulk In The Red Sea Since 1988

Remember the Exxon Valdez that ruptured when it hit a reef off the coast of Alaska?

The oil tanker owned by the Exxon Shipping Company, spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989.

It caused the world’s biggest maritime environmental disaster.

In terms of volume of oil released it is second to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but in terms of damage it is the worst by far. Despite a clean-up that went on for years, less than 10% of the oil was recovered.

Now fast forward to today, and just so we are sure we are comparing apples with apples, that was 11 million gallons of crude oil that leaked out of the Exxon Valdez.

In the oil industry, a barrel is defined as 42 US gallons, or 35 imperial gallons.

Well, the Floating Storage And Offloading Vessel Safer (yes, that’s its name) has 1.2 million barrels of crude oil in its tanks. That’s 50.4 million US gallons of oil, or more than four times the amount on the Exxon Valdez.

The FSO Safer lies 15° 07.0′ N, 042° 36.0′ E at the Ras Isa Marine Terminal (YERAI) and it has been there since 1988, rusting and abandoned.

And since 2015 a pawn in a game of chicken between Iranian-back Houthi rebels and just about everyone else.

The Houthis want payment for the oil. The UN wants to avoid an ecological disaster.

Here is a general map of the region, with the FSO Safer marked with a red dot, and again in the close-up map.

Apart from the ecological damage at stake, to the south is the narrow Bab-El-Mandeb Strait (‘The Gate of Lamentations’ in Arabic) that gives out into the Gulf of Aden. Via the Suez Canal it is the shortest trade route between the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the rest of East Asia. So not surprisingly it is one of the world’s major trade routes.

So how is this going to play out? The Houthis agreed to let UN inspectors in, and then changed their minds. And meanwhile the hulk rusts.

A general map of the region of the Horn of Africa, with the SFO Safer marked with a red dot.

A close-upl map 15° 07.0′ N, 042° 36.0′ E at the Ras Isa Marine Terminal (YERAI), with the SFO Safer marked with a red dot.

Update 16 August

The Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Aswat reported on 16th August on a seminar held by The Yemen Coalition of Independent Women. One item caught my eye, which is the claim that Iranian-backed Houthi militias are smuggling of Thorium from Yemen to Iran.

Update 18 August

Sea News reports that the IMO (an agency of the United Nations responsible for regulating shipping) is putting a plan in place to try to make the SFO Safer safe or to deal with a leak if there is one. I don’t know whether that is any advance on the news we have already, but one thing that caught my eye is that there are “recent reports of water entering the engine room”. 

April 2022

It reads like a bad dream. How could this be going on for so long. The Security Council Report for April reads:

There has been progress towards resolving the threat posed by the FSO Safer, the vessel moored off the Houthi-held port of Ras Issa in the Red Sea that is at risk of a major oil spill or explosion. On 5 March, the UN signed a memorandum of understanding with the Houthis and the Fahem Group (one of Yemen’s largest import companies) to transfer the oil on the Safer to a vessel that would replace the ageing tanker. The memorandum notes that the plan is contingent on donor funding and could entail an interim ship to hold the oil until a suitable replacement vessel for the Safer is acquired.