An international team began siphoning oil out of a decrepit oil tanker off the coast of Yemen on Tuesday, the United Nations chief said, a crucial step in a complex salvage operation aiming to prevent a potential environmental disaster.
For years, many organizations have warned that the neglected vessel, known as SOF Safer, may cause a major oil spill or even explode. “The ship-to-ship transfer of oil which has started today is the critical next step in avoiding an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe on a colossal scale,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement.
More than 1.1 million barrels of oil stored in the rusting tanker were being moved to another vessel the U.N. purchased, he said. The oil transfer came after months of on-site preparatory work and is scheduled to be completed in less than three weeks, the U.N. said.
The Safter tanker was built in the 1970s and sold to the Yemeni government in the 1980s to store up to 3 million barrels of export oil pumped from fields in Marib, a province in eastern Yemen. The ship is 360 meters (1,181 feet) long with 34 storage tanks.
It is moored 6 kilometres (3.7 miles) from Yemen’s western Red Sea ports of Hodeida and Ras Issa, a strategic area controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who are at war with the internationally recognized government.
The vessel has not been maintained for eight years and its structural integrity is compromised, making it at risk of breaking up or exploding. Seawater has entered the engine compartment, causing damage to the pipes and increasing the risk of sinking, according to internal documents obtained by The Associated Press in June 2020.
For years, the U.N. and governments of other countries, as well as environmental groups, have warned that if an oil spill — or explosion— occurs, it could disrupt global commercial shipping through the vital Bab el-Mandeb and Suez Canal routes, causing untold damage to the global economy.
The tanker carries four times as much oil as was spilt in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska, one of the world’s worst ecological catastrophes, according to the U.N.
“The potential clean-up bill alone could easily run into the tens of billions of dollars,” Guterres said. The replacement vessel, now named the Yemen, reached Yemen’s coast earlier this month and the salvage team managed on Saturday to safely berth it alongside the Safer.
“The transfer of the oil to Yemen will prevent the worst-case scenario of a catastrophic spill in the Red Sea, but it is not the end of the operation,” David Gressly, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said Monday.
After transferring the oil, the Yemen vessel will be connected to an undersea pipeline that brings oil from the fields, Achim Steiner, administrator of the U.N. Development Program, told the AP on Sunday.
Steiner said the Safer tanker would be towed away to a scrapyard to be recycled. The U.N. chief said about $20 million is still needed to finish the salvage operation, including cleaning and scrapping the tanker and removing any remaining environmental threat to the Red Sea.