As reported in The New Yorker:

Near the port of Hodeidah, in southern Yemen, at the terminus of an oil pipeline from the Marib, sits what used to be a very impressive ship, owned by the Safer Exploration and Production Operations Company (SEPOC).  It is forty-five years old, now derelict, and still loaded with a million barrels of oil.  Surrounded by the world’s hottest war zone, it is manned by a rotating skeleton crew, has no maintenance budget, and has been blocked from access by any international body attempting to offload it, repair it, or even inspect it.  There may or may not be mines in the surrounding water, and the person who may have laid them is dead.  It could either explode or sink at any time, closing the port, the strait of Bab el-Mandeb at the mouth of the Red Sea, and the waters everywhere around it.  It would drastically impact the ecosystem of the Red Sea and every human that relies upon it for food, shut down trade at a cost of billions per day, and cut off the last lifeline of the starving people of Yemen.

The floating-storage-and-offloading facility, FSO Safer (pronounced saffer, it assuredly is not safe) had some years of use as a supertanker before being mothballed in Norway, then bought and refitted for its job at the pipeline end.  In its day it was a great place to live and work.  It was maintained at a yearly cost of 20 million dollars by its owner, the Hunt Oil Company of Dallas.  That was before the Yemeni civil war.

Hunt lost its permit to extract oil in 2005, and SEPOC took over management of the Safer. An onshore oil terminal to replace it (after massive corruption derailed the first attempt) was half built when the Houthis took over the capital of Yemen in 2014. They appropriated SEPOC’s entire operating budget and the maintenance on the Safer stopped. The ship has been uninsured since September 2016.

Yemen’s neighbors with help from the US, the UK, and France, have fought the Houthis for six years, devastating the entire country.  [as a side note, the CFR for Covid in Yemen is nearly 50%, reflecting both that only the direst cases are even tested, and that there is no medical infrastructure left standing.]

The fuel oil for the boilers has run out.  (the use of the crude itself was considered and ruled out for safety reasons, and a lack of proper supplies for laying up the boilers)  This means that safety systems are not operating.  Tankers are supposed to keep their tanks topped by a layer of inert gas to prevent accidental ignition of vapors from the oil, but this can no longer be done on the Safer. The fire suppression systems are inoperable. Only a couple of on-deck diesel generators supply power for charging electronics.  The oil is in the middle tank, and the outer tanks have been filled with seawater as a hedge against possible bullets.

The warring parties in Yemen asked for UN assistance with the problem, and signed a partial accord in Stockholm in 2018 that dealt with the status of the port. A team was assembled and given a safe passage document to access the ship to evaluate the problem, but the whole thing was called off the night before the mission.  The Houthis were trying to use the situation as leverage in other negotiations.

Seawater started leaking severely in May 2020. The leak was patched, but some water continues to leak in and must be pumped out, with the deck generators supplying power.  After this incident, Houthi soldiers were assigned to the vessel, which doesn’t help much of anything.  The UN arranged for an inflatable boom capable of surrounding the ship to be flown to the port, where it is waiting, undeployed, in case of oil spill which is inevitable.  Cleanup alone, should the oil spill, has been estimated to cost 20 billion dollars.  And no amount of money will restore this:

The Red Sea is a natural marvel that is sometimes known as the Baby Ocean. The robust and relatively young coral systems in its waters extend twelve hundred miles, from the Gulf of Aqaba, by the Sinai Peninsula, to the Dahlak Archipelago, off the coast of Eritrea. The coral reefs support a unique and bountiful ecology. Fifteen per cent of the Red Sea’s marine life is endemic: many species, including fabulously arrayed parrot fish, wrasses, and dottybacks, live nowhere other than in its bath-warm waters. Along the coast of the sea, and on its many sparsely populated islands, mangrove systems abound. (Mangroves are nurseries for young fish and other delicate species, and provide nesting sites for migratory birds.)

In 1991 Saddam Hussein deliberately spilled 11 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf to block US vessels from the area.  The slick was 5 inches thick in places, and the damage was enormous.  With this history in mind, Saudi Arabia is preparing for urgent action in case the Safer sinks and breaks open.  Since Saudi Arabia acquires half its water supply by desalination, the shoreline plants are a major concern.  But they can do nothing to prevent the upcoming disaster, only prepare to mitigate it.

The Houthis continue to make unreasonable demands, amounting to wanting the UN to completely refurbish the tanker or replace it with something similar so it could still be used as it was.  This is not feasible.

The United States, which has made a more concerted effort to help end the fighting in Yemen since President Joe Biden took office, has been notably quiet on the Safer issue. Recently, however, Cathy Westley, the chargé d’affaires for the U.S. Embassy to Yemen, told me that she placed the onus squarely on the Houthis to stop obstructing the U.N., and she accused them of “politicizing the tanker.” I also learned that American representatives were attempting, through Omani interlocutors and other partners, to convince the Houthis of the perils of inaction.

Some Houthi officials downplay the urgency of the threat.  Sound familiar? Some openly call the Safer a weapon and are basically holding their own people and infrastructure hostage.

The intransigence from Sana’a has  prompted some proposals of actual military intervention to protect a team to offload the oil to a spare supertanker.  This has some obvious drawbacks with a ship that could be set ablaze by one bullet.

Another group looking to solve the Safer crisis has quietly suggested what has become known as the Commercial Option. The combined worth of the ship’s oil and its scrap metal is approximately a hundred million dollars; the idea is to sell enough of these assets to pay for the transfer of fuel to another ship, and for the Safer’s removal from the Red Sea. No agreement has been reached about the profits that might be generated by this process, but the Houthis expect that any remaining funds would be relayed to their government in Sana’a.

While nothing is done, the ship continues to rust.  And leak. And threaten the entire area.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.

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