UN: Cost is new obstacle to oil transport from Yemeni tanker

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UNITED NATIONS (TBEN) — The rising cost of buying or leasing a ship capable of holding more than 1 million barrels of crude oil, now in a rusting old tanker off the coast of war-torn Yemen, is the latest obstacle to the address the grave threat of massive environmental damage from a potential oil spill or explosion, the UN said on Tuesday.

UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said the availability of very large crude oil tankers “has declined over the past six months, mainly due to events related to the war in Ukraine.”

He said that just as the UN was finally preparing its operation to transfer oil from the FSO Safer tanker, the cost of buying a very large crude oil tanker is now about 50% higher than what was budgeted in the original UN plan, and the leasing costs have also increased.

“So we have some extra expenses and it’s a bit more difficult to find the right ships, but we’re continuing the work,” Haq said.

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He said donors have generously pledged more than $84 million of needed funding, with additional funding from the private sector expected soon.

Haq said more than $73 million in pledges has been disbursed and vital preparatory work has begun.

“All the technical expertise is in place to carry out the tender for the complex operation,” he said. “This will include a maritime management consultancy, a maritime law firm, insurance and shipping brokers and oil spill experts,” as well as contracting a salvage company to carry out the emergency operation, which is at an advanced stage.

“However, the main challenge at the moment is the purchase of a very large oil tanker,” said Haq. “The UN cannot begin the emergency operation until it is certain that a safe crude oil tanker will be there to pick up the oil.”

He said the UN is working with a maritime broker and other partners “to find a workable solution and is confident that work can begin in the coming months.”

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The United Nations and Houthi rebels in Yemen signed a memorandum of understanding last March to resolve the environmental threat posed by the Safer tanker to the Red Sea.

The Safer tanker is a Japanese-made ship 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 that currently the scene of limited fighting. The ship is 360 meters long and has 34 storage tanks.

Yemen’s devastating conflict began in 2014, when the Iranian-backed Houthis seized the capital Sanaa and much of northern Yemen, forcing the government into exile. A Saudi Arabian-led coalition including the United Arab Emirates intervened in 2015 to try to bring the internationally recognized government back to power.

A UN-backed ceasefire came into effect in April 2022, raising hopes for an extended lull in the fighting, but ended on October 2 after just six months. UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg told the Security Council on Monday that despite the end of the ceasefire, “the overall military situation in Yemen has remained stable” with no major escalation or changes in the front lines despite some limited military activity.

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The Houthis control Yemen’s western Red Sea ports, including Ras Issa, just 6 kilometers (about 4 miles) from where the Safer is moored.

Internal documents obtained by The The Bharat Express News in June 2020 revealed that seawater had entered the tanker’s engine compartment, damaging the piping and increasing the risk of sinking. According to the TBEN report, experts said maintenance was no longer possible because the damage to the ship was irreversible.

The United Nations, the United States and other governments, as well as Greenpeace and other international organizations, have been warning for years that a major oil spill — or explosion — could disrupt global commercial shipping through the vital routes of Bab el Mendez and the Suez Canal, causing untold damage to the world economy.