UN signs deal to help move 1 million barrels of oil off tanker stranded near Yemen
Oil must be moved off rusting tanker to prevent risk of spill or explosion
The United Nations (UN) announced Thursday it signed an agreement to purchase a very large vessel that can transfer more than 1 million barrels of crude now stranded in a rusting tanker off the coast of war-torn Yemen.
The deal is the first step in an eventual operation to evacuate the cargo and eliminate the threat of massive environmental damage from a possible oil spill or explosion.
Achim Steiner, administrator of the UN Development Program, told a news conference that the deal was signed with Euronav, the world's largest independent tanker company, to secure the purchase of a large crude carrier for the endeavour.
The double-hulled carrier, found "following an intense search on an extremely stressed global market," is expected to sail within the next month to Yemen's Red Sea waters and park alongside the FSO Safer, he said.
"If all things go according to plan," the ship-to-ship crude transfer would start in early May," Steiner said.
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The Japanese-made Safer was built in the 1970s and sold to the Yemeni government in the 1980s to store up to 3 million barrels of oil pumped from fields in Marib, a province in eastern Yemen.
The impoverished Arab Peninsula country has for years been engulfed in civil war.
Yemen's conflict started in 2014 when the Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country's north, forcing the government to flee to the south, then to Saudi Arabia.
The following year, a Saudi-led coalition entered the war to fight the Houthis and try and restore the internationally recognized government to power.
No annual maintenance in years
No annual maintenance has taken place since 2015 on the ship, which is is 360 metres long with 34 storage tanks. Most crew members, except for 10 people, were pulled off the vessel after the Saudis entered the conflict.
In 2020, internal documents obtained by The Associated Press showed that seawater has entered Safer's engine compartment, causing damage to pipes and increasing the risk of sinking. Rust has covered parts of the tanker and the inert gas that prevents the tanks from gathering inflammable gases, has leaked out.
Experts said maintenance was no longer possible because the damage to the ship is irreversible, according to an Associated Press report.
The situation has raised fears of a massive oil spill or explosion that could cause an environmental catastrophe. The UN has repeatedly warned that the tanker could release four times more oil than the notorious Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska in 1989.