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A Looming Crisis: Delays and Challenges in Decommissioning Yemen’s Ailing Oil Tanker

A Looming Crisis: Delays and Challenges in Decommissioning Yemen's Ailing Oil Tanker

A Looming Crisis: Delays and Challenges in Decommissioning Yemen’s Ailing Oil Tanker

In August of last year, the United Nations (UN) proudly announced the completion of the oil transfer from the deteriorating FSO Safer, an oil tanker turned storage unit, located just four miles off the coast of Yemen. However, a recent interview with UN officials by Agence France-Presse (AFP) reveals a disturbing turn of events, shedding light on how the project’s success is now under threat due to delays, financial shortfalls, and the escalating security crisis in the Red Sea.

Background: The FSO Safer

Built in 1976 as a supertanker operating under the name Esso Japan, the FSO Safer underwent a transformation in 1987, becoming an unpropelled storage vessel with a substantial capacity of three million barrels. Positioned off the coast of Yemen, it operated for the national oil company until operations were suspended. By the time of the UN’s intervention, the Safer had fallen into disrepair, harboring approximately one million barrels of oil since 2015, with limited maintenance exacerbating its condition.

The UN’s Decision to Pause

“After much consideration, the UN had no option but to pause the project at this time,” revealed a spokesperson for the UN Development Programme, the overseeing body for the salvage operation, in a recent statement to AFP. The decision to pause stems from a combination of security concerns in Yemen and a substantial $22 million funding shortfall. Despite closely monitoring the Yemeni situation, the UN finds itself at an impasse.

Perils of the Project

The UN’s salvaging efforts faced numerous challenges even before the recent setback. In the lead-up to the salvage operation, UN officials consistently raised concerns about the potential for the Safer to become entangled in the conflict, sabotaged, or inadvertently struck by a missile. With renewed hostilities involving the Houthi rebels and a U.S.-led response, fears have resurfaced, heightening concerns that both the Safer and its replacement, the Yemen (300,000 deadweight tons), might become targets or unintended casualties in the ongoing regional conflict.

Unfinished Business: The Second Phase

The original UN plan envisioned a second phase following the successful oil transfer between the two vessels. The team led by Boskalis’ SMIT Salvage completed the final activities at the end of August 2023, involving the cleaning of the Safer’s tanks in preparation for removal and sale as scrap. However, UN officials caution that the tanker’s structure remains in critical condition, with residual amounts of oil that could still leak. The current pause in the operation significantly impacts the ongoing efforts to remove and recycle the vessel.

Stalled Plans: Yemen’s Uncertain Future

The salvage team, while assisting in mooring the Yemen near the Safer, faces an additional hurdle. The installation of a permanent mooring assembly and anchorage, slated for the second phase, has been put on hold. Furthermore, uncertainty clouds the future management of the Yemen. The Houthi rebels claim ownership of the oil, proposing to sell it for funds or move it to a newly built storage facility in their controlled regions. Meanwhile, the Yemeni government asserts ownership but lacks control over the relevant Yemeni region.

UN’s Acquisition of Nautica and Management Uncertainty

In an effort to address the situation, the UN acquired the former tanker Nautica from Euronav, gifting it to the people of Yemen and renaming it Yemen. The vessel came with a six-month management contract, but AFP reports that this contract is due to expire. The national oil company has expressed intentions to potentially take control and management of the Yemen, yet the course of action remains unclear.

The Consequences of Inaction

Amidst these uncertainties, an official from the oil company, as quoted by AFP, warns of potential repercussions if the UN fails to complete the project. There’s a looming fear that failure could result in a recurrence of the same problems in the future, underscoring the urgency of addressing the challenges and resuming the decommissioning efforts.

In conclusion, Yemen’s ailing oil tanker, the Safer, stands at the center of a complex and precarious situation, where delays, financial constraints, and security issues threaten the success of the UN’s decommissioning project. The implications extend beyond the immediate environmental concerns to the broader geopolitical landscape, emphasizing the need for swift and effective resolution to avert a potential crisis. The international community must unite to overcome these challenges and ensure the safe and environmentally responsible decommissioning of the Safer and the future management of the Yemen.

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