UN has Agreement to Transfer Oil from FSO Safer Near the Yemen Coast

FSO Safer Yemen
FSO Safer and her mooring turret in earleir days while she was still in good condition (Conflict Observatory file photo)

Published Feb 16, 2022 1:59 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a nearly two-hour-long update, the United Nations Security Council discussed the dangers of a potential escalation of the war in Yemen and the humanitarian crisis. While saying the dangers remain high, but there remains the potential for a political settlement, the UN team reported a tentative agreement to address the problem of an aging FSO loaded with more than one million barrels of oil caught in the conflict. 

“It should be obvious to everyone just how high the stakes have become,” Hans Grundberg, the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, told the Security Council at Tuesday’s briefing, citing a recent spike in clashes including attacks outside Yemen.  However, a “way out of this war” still exists, he said, outlining his work on a framework plan to move the parties towards an inclusive political settlement, while also continuing to explore options to fast-track de-escalation.

It was during the session that the team also announced that an agreement in principle had been reached for the FSO Safer, the oil storage facility that the UN has previously called a “ticking time bomb.” While discussing the humanitarian aspects of the crisis, Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, confirmed to the Security Council the progress to resolve a long standoff over the vessel.

Constructed in 1976 as an oil tanker and converted a decade later to be a floating storage facility for oil, the FSO Safer is moored about 4.8 nautical miles off the coast. The vessel is near the port of Ras Issa on the Red Sea in an area that is controlled by the Houthis. The vessel services the Marib oilfields in eastern Yemen, which have been out of service since the civil war began in 2015. The FSO Safer, however, remains loaded with approximately 1.1 million barrels of oil. The vessel has been deteriorating with only a skeleton crew aboard to provide limited maintenance. Reports highlighted numerous problems and failures in the ship and also said that the tanks have not been properly vented for an extended period of time.

The UN has been cautioning about the vessel since 2019. In late 2020 they reported that an agreement with the Houthis for an inspection crew to board the vessel to determine the scope of the issues and develop a plan. After months of back and forth, that agreement however unraveled over security concerns and reports that the rebels wanted the repairs done during the inspection.

Earlier in February, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, David Gressly, had first announced that the UN had held constructive meetings on a proposal to mitigate the threat posed by the FSO Safer. Gressly said the UN-coordinated proposal is to shift the million barrels of oil on board the vessel to another ship while reporting that discussions were continuing with “interested member states whose support will be crucial to realize the project.”

After the Security Council meeting, envoy Grundberg briefed reporters at the UN. He said the agreement need to be solidified and cautioned over the difficulties in the region while expressing optimism that the agreement could proceed.  Another U.N. senior policy adviser told the reporters that efforts are already underway to bring a boom from Djibouti to Yemen’s main port at Hodeida and that the UN is trying to locate a suitable vessel to which the oil could be transferred.

The UN and other international groups have repeatedly warned of the significant potential dangers to the region if the oil was to leak or the vessel was compromised due to the lack of maintenance.  Last month, another aging FSO partially sunk off the Nigerian coast after a fire and explosion killed several of the crew members aboard. In that instance, the vessel was believed to have been largely empty and there have not been significant reports of oil pollution unlike the predictions if the FSO Safer were to experience a similar calamity.