COLUMN | Good news: salvage work on FSO Safer underway, Heroic Idun crew arrive home, Nigerian central bank governor arrested! [Offshore Accounts]
Finally, some good news from the Arabian Peninsula and the war-torn state of Yemen. The United Nations has contracted Dutch offshore services provider Boskalis and its SMIT Salvage division to prevent a massive oil spill from the 400,000DWT floating storage and offloading (FSO) vessel Safer.
Last week, SMIT crew were able to board the derelict FSO and commence inspections and preparation work for the discharge of around a million barrels of crude oil. The cargo has been languishing on board the stricken vessel for eight years.
Boskalis’ DP2 multipurpose vessel Ndeavor is now alongside, connected by a gangway, and the operation to make safe the “floating bomb” has begun. A video update from SMIT on Friday, June 9, is here. SMIT crew have placed inert gas generators on board Safer and are assessing the vessel’s tanks and equipment.
So far, so good.
Not so safe Safer
Safer is moored approximately five nautical miles off the Yemeni coast at the abandoned Ras Issa export terminal in the Red Sea, northeast of the port of Hodeida. Constructed in 1976 as the oil tanker Esso Japan, laid up in the tanker downturn of the early 1980s, and converted in 1987 into a floating storage facility for Hunt Oil, the vessel arrived to inaugurate exports from the terminal in 1988.
Safer is single-hulled and 362 metres in length, moored by an external turret mooring, which is now a roost for sea birds. The FSO is connected to a subsea export pipeline, through which Hunt pumped crude from its onshore Marib oilfields in the Yemeni interior.
Safer has been sitting, corroding at its moorings, for the better part of a decade, with only a skeleton crew on board. Hunt’s production-sharing agreement with the Yemeni government expired in 2005, and operatorship of the field and the terminal was transferred to the state-owned Safer Exploration and Production Exploration Company (SEPOC).
Not such a civil war
Yemen plunged into civil war in 2014 after rebels from the Houthi tribe seized Sanaa, the capital. In 2015, Saudi Arabia intervened to attempt to restore Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had fled the country. In 2019, Hadi’s allies, backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, took control of Aden, and declared it the country’s temporary capital. Now the war has ground to a standstill, with the Houthis holding the northern highlands as well as Sanaa and Hodeida, whilst Hadi and his supporters hold the southern coast and the east of the country with backing from Saudi Arabia.
Royal Saudi Air Force strike aircraft have been bombing Houthi-held territory for eight years, whilst the Houthis have attacked both Saudi Arabia and the UAE with drones and missiles. The UN estimates the war has killed almost 400,000 people, both directly and indirectly through hunger and disease – and 70 per cent of those deaths are of children. Nearly half the country’s population of 30 million people does not have enough food, according to the World Food Programme.
The worst case
The Houthis have been using the laden FSO as a pawn in their battle with Hadi and the Saudis. No maintenance has been performed on the vessel for seven years and the FSO’s structural integrity is now potentially compromised, posing a substantial threat of a huge oil spill in the Red Sea.
In the worst case, a spill would leave eight million people without fresh water, as it would close Yemen’s ports, and the country relies on imported fuel to operate water pumps. A spill would also devastate the regional fisheries of southern Saudi Arabia, western Yemen and Eritrea, wreck numerous coral reefs, and potentially close the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, disrupting global trade.
Additionally, pollution would close the desalination plants in Jizan in Saudi Arabia and potentially as far north as Jeddah. The Saudi environment agency has contracted Finnish oil spill response provider Lamor to operate a spill response service to protect Jeddah against such a contingency.
Last month, the British government estimated that a large spill from Safer would cost US$20 billion to remediate.
Not in great shape
Operations at Ras Issa were suspended by SEPOC at the end of 2015, as fighting raged across the country and the Houthis occupied Hodeida. The tanker berthing tugs and line handling vessels were withdrawn from location, and the dive team that serviced the terminal returned to Dubai, whilst most of the FSO’s crew were taken off the ship for their own safety.
By 2016, Safer’s insurance had lapsed, and ABS could no longer survey the FSO due to the war, so its class certificate expired. SEPOC filled some of the ship’s outermost tanks with seawater to prevent a spill in the event of a rupture to the hull, as the Houthis were rumoured to have laid sea mines nearby.
In 2017, the ship’s boilers ran out of fuel, cutting off power and shutting down the inert gas system. The engine room flooded in May 2020 after a seawater-pipe burst. Repair took five days and required a local dive team to weld a sea chest shut. The vessel could have been lost in this incident, which highlighted its vulnerability.
The only power on board comes from a small generator on deck that provides lighting and heat to SEPOC’s skeleton crew, and runs pumps in the engine room to battle water ingress from the still-leaky sea chest. After the engine room flooding, the Houthis put some soldiers aboard the FSO and set up a closed-circuit television system on board.
The Betelgeuse fireball in 1979
One leak of volatile vapours from the tanks and ignition, and the whole ship could explode, in a disaster reminiscence of the Whiddy Island disaster off Ireland in 1979. Then, Total’s tanker Betelgeuse blew up after a structural failure whilst discharging crude at Gulf Oil’s terminal in Bantry Bay, killing 50 people on board and ashore. A salvage diver was subsequently killed in the complex wreck removal operation, which was also performed by SMIT. There is an excellent video here, including footage of some of the best radio room attire ever.
Safer’s fire extinguishing systems are non-operational and one of the salvage team’s first tasks is to assess the condition of the tanks and the structure of the vessel, guided by the brave SEPOC crew who have remained on board in appalling circumstances.
International efforts to stave off disaster
In 2018, both President Hadi’s government of Yemen and Houthi leaders wrote separately to the United Nations Secretary-General asking for UN assistance with Safer. The problem was passed to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which arranged for a survey of the vessel in 2019, but this was blocked at the last minute by the Houthis. In 2020, the UN brought a boom to deploy around the FSO, but, again, the Houthis refused to let it be put into operation. Another attempt to inspect Safer was also thwarted that year.
In 2022, the UN launched a fundraising campaign to pay for the cargo discharge and the removal of Safer for scrapping. Saudi Arabia gave just US$10 million, less than it pays to professional footballer Cristiano Ronaldo in monthly wages. The UN raised over US$75 million to attempt a salvage operation, including over US$15 million from the Dutch government and US$10 million from the UK.
Of course, the Saudi Arabian government, busy bombing Yemen and spending billions on its own new fantasy city of Neom on the Red Sea, could and should have written that cheque years ago.
But then again, why would they?
UN becomes a tanker player
As well as signing the contract with Boskalis and its SMIT Salvage unit to survey the FSO and arrange a ship-to-ship transfer of the crude, the UN also purchased the very large crude carrier (VLCC) Nautica, from Euronav. Nautica now sits in Djibouti anchorage waiting for SMIT (and the Houthis) to give the green light to proceed to Ras Issa terminal and load the crude from Safer. Safer would then be un-moored and towed for recycling at a green yard.
We were delighted to see that, on Friday, June 2, SMIT Salvage crew boarded the FSO for the first time and completed initial inspections after arriving offshore Yemen on Ndeavor at the end of May. First, gas measurements were taken to assess the presence of toxic gas in and around the vessel. After the ship was declared “safe to access,” SMIT’s mobile inert gas generators were lifted onboard Safer by Ndeavor’s crane. Salvage personnel have now begun inspections of the FSO and its deck machinery and pumps, as well as commenced structural hull assessments.
We’ll keep you updated. Good luck, SMIT!
More good news – Heroic Idun crew are home
Regular readers will have been following the lengthy injustice of the 26 crew of the VLCC Heroic Idun, which was detained on trumped-up charges in Nigeria last year after a mess-up by the Nigerian Navy.
After paying a massive shake-down restitution of US$15 million to the Nigerian authorities, the vessel finally sailed for South Africa on May 28. The crew of 16 Indians, eight Sri Lankans, one Pole, and one Filipino arrived in Port Elizabeth on Wednesday, June 7, and were transferred to hotels to prepare for their flights back home. They received counselling from the Sailors’ Society’s Crisis Response Network in Cape Town.
The Indian crew arrived in India amid much celebration on Saturday. Let’s hope this never happens again.
And finally… consequences arrive in Abuja
Revelling in other people’s misfortunes is never an attractive trait. But when we learnt that Nigeria’s new president Bola Tinubu had suspended the country’s central bank governor, Godwin Emefiele, with “immediate effect” on Friday, we smiled. Then we grinned broadly when we learnt that he had been immediately arrested as part of a criminal investigation into his tenure. At the time of writing, he remains in custody.
Mr Emefiele’s time as central bank governor saw futile attempts to prop up the value of the Nigerian naira, even as Nigeria’s foreign reserves shrank and there were chronic shortages of dollars. Rather than accepting reality, the central bank introduced different exchange rate “windows” open to different businesses, which led to the proliferation of a parallel exchange market (sometimes dubbed a “black market”). In this informal exchange market, the dollar trades at as much as 50 per cent higher than the official Nigerian central bank exchange rates.
The Financial Times has highlighted how these multiple exchange rates are open to abuse as the restrictions favour the Nigerian elite, who can profit from “round tripping,” i.e., buying dollars for cheap from the central bank and then selling the dollars on the black market at a much higher rate.
Mr Emefiele was also responsible for the chaotic introduction of new bank notes and the withdrawal of old naira notes from circulation in February, which led to widespread problems in the country due to a shortage of physical cash. The value of the naira plunged last week and hit a record low on Thursday, June 8, at 462 to the US dollar before Mr Emefiele was arrested.
After his shambolic tenure, Nigerians deserve better governance and better monetary policy – and hopefully better poetry than this amusing doggerel about his fall.
Video of the SMIT Salvage crew boarding FSO Safer and completing first inspections is here.
Time magazine managed to interview the former loading master of Safer, Ahmed Kulaib, in May 2021.
The New Yorker’s Ed Caesar wrote a detailed piece in October 2021 titled The Ship that became a bomb, which thrust Safer into the limelight.
Academics writing in the journal Nature Sustainability simulated the catastrophic effects of an oil spill from the FSO in October 2021.
Specifications of Ndeavor are here.
Read about the Jizan desalination plant in Smart Water Magazine.