Oil tanker in the Red Sea: The delicate salvage of the “ticking time bomb” at 50 degrees Celsius
Freitag, 28.07.2023, 21:55
An oil tanker exploding or breaking apart in the Red Sea: The consequences could eclipse all previous environmental catastrophes. The rescue operation has started, the risks are great.
A delicate salvage operation began in the Red Sea on Tuesday under adverse circumstances. It is about more than 200 million liters of oil that are stored on the tanker “FSO Safer” off the coast of civil war-torn Yemen. The tanker has been in danger of breaking up or exploding for a long time. If the oil ran into the Red Sea, it would trigger an unprecedented oil spill that would pollute the environment there for decades and impede navigation through the Suez Canal. The head of the UN Development Program (UNDP), Achim Steiner, spoke of a ticking time bomb.
The campaign started without any problems, Steiner said on Tuesday, a few hours after it started in New York. However, it is still a very difficult and complex mission – in addition, around 20 million dollars (about 18 million euros) are still missing in financing the mission.
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Defusing the time bomb
The Dutch salvage company Smit, a subsidiary of Boskalis, which specializes in complicated operations, is now pumping the oil onto another tanker lying alongside the “Safer”. With more than 40 degrees in the region and up to 50 degrees on the metal floors of the tanker, the action is a particular challenge, Steiner said. “But doing nothing would be the biggest risk,” he said. UN Secretary-General António Guterres also said the mission is about defusing what is “possibly the world’s largest ticking time bomb”.
The UNDP coordinates the action. On board the tanker are 1.37 million barrels of oil (about 218 million liters). In 2021, Smit also refloated a container ship in the Suez Canal that had turned sideways during storms and blocked traffic through the important artery for six days. The UNDP bought the tanker “Nautica” in the spring, onto which the oil from the “Safer” is now pumped. The ship was renamed Yemen, after the English spelling of the civil war country.
Pumping should take two to three weeks. The tanks then have to be cleaned and the dirty water also pumped out before the “Safer” can be towed away and safely disposed of.
“We work in a war zone”
The 350 meter long tanker is 47 years old. In industry, a commercial lifespan for oil tankers is around 25 years. Yemen’s state oil company used the ship as an interim storage facility. Because of the civil war, it has not been serviced for eight years.
The salvage operation is highly risky. Not only could hoses rupture, the hull of the ship leak, the tanker break apart or explode. “We work in a war zone,” Steiner said. The area around the tanker and the coast about nine kilometers away are partly mined. Insurers have insisted that planes with chemicals on board are available 24 hours a day within 90 minutes of flight time, ready to launch containment measures immediately in the event of an accident.
The parties to the civil war in Yemen could also stop the salvage at any time. In Yemen, the internationally recognized government and the Houthi rebels, who overran large parts of the country in 2014, are fighting for supremacy. The Houthi rebels control the capital, Sana’a, and are referred to by the UN as the “de facto authorities.” The coast where the tanker lies is in rebel hands. Oil on board is largely owned by the state oil company – over which both sides claim sovereignty. Despite deep mutual distrust, they agreed to the rescue after months of negotiations, Steiner said. It is planned that the proceeds from the sale of the oil will benefit the population across the country.
The United Nations describes the situation in Yemen as one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in the world. Since the outbreak of war, the economy in the already poor country has collapsed. More than three quarters of the more than 30 million inhabitants are dependent on humanitarian aid. However, the supply is difficult due to disputes about access to the partly mined ports.
“Where are the oil and gas companies in the world?”
If something goes wrong, there is a risk of an oil spill of gigantic proportions. The Safer has a little more oil on board than the Exxon Valdez, which ran aground off Alaska in 1989. At that time, almost 260,000 barrels of oil spilled, and hundreds of thousands of fish and birds died. The accident is still considered the biggest environmental disaster in international shipping.
In the event of an oil spill in the Red Sea, fish stocks could be depleted for at least 25 years, Steiner said. Neighbors used the Red Sea for tourism, such as Egypt with its diving offers in Hurghada. Other countries needed the water for desalination plants to supply their inhabitants with drinking water. The “Safer” is located on the important shipping route to the Suez Canal around 2000 kilometers further north. Shipping would be affected there for weeks.
The costs of salvaging and disposing of the tanker “Safer” have exploded from 85 to 143 million dollars (around 128 million euros) since planning began. With a good twelve million dollars, Germany is one of the most generous donor countries for the campaign. The oil and energy industry was reluctant to participate, Steiner said, with $12 million. “Where are the oil and gas companies in the world that can make a bigger contribution here?” he asked.