Oceans of Oil

Alaska, 1989 – The Exxon Valdez oil spill

There are currently two massive oil tankers filled with tens of millions of gallons of oil that are barely able to float. One is situated nicely between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean; the other is sitting at the southern end of the Red Sea. The FSO Nabarima, anchored off the coast of Venezuela, is literally hanging on by a few threads. The ship was noticeably listing to starboard (leaning to the right) and the only thing that stopped it from capsizing completely was a few chains attached to the port side of its bow (left side of the front). Off the coast of Yemen lies the FSO Safer, formerly owned by the Yemeni Oil and Gas Company. Since the outbreak of civil war in Yemen, FSO Safer has fallen into the hands of Houthi rebels, who are holding the massive oil container ship hostage. The Safer has been abandoned for several years and its condition could best be described as a time bomb. Water is leaking into the engine room, part of the ship are falling apart, yet the Houthi rebels have so far refused to allow UN investigators to board and repair the ship.

For reference, the Exxon Valdez was carrying approximately 260,000 barrels of oil when it spilled off the coast of Alaska in 1989, and the consequences were catastrophic. The FSO Safer currently has over 1.1 million barrels on board, and the FSO Nabarima reportedly has at least 1.3 million. These two vessels combined are carrying over nine times the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez. An ecological crisis the likes of which the world has never seen is on the horizon, yet there is no mention of the vessels in the news and the efforts to prevent catastrophe have been minimal.

FSO Nabarima

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The FSO Nabarima when it was listing

If you are new to the world of geopolitics, my quick catcher-upper for you is that Venezuela is a mess. Their president is an authoritarian socialist, their economy is in shambles, I mean the state of Venezuela could be a whole novel on its own. All you really need to know is that their dictator is a socialist, so the state owns businesses in Venezuela. One of those businesses is Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), which owns the FSO Nabarima. Now if there is anything that Donny Trump and I agree on, it would be that socialism does not work. Thus, Trump placed sanctions on PDVSA which forced the company to delay its transportation of approximately 1.3 million barrels of oil to Italian energy company Eni (ENI? I could not tell if it was an acronym their website said “Eni” so I just rolled with that). What do you do with 1.3 million barrels of oil if you cannot transport it to its destination? Well, nothing it seems. The Nabarima, the tanker ship on which those barrels are stored, has been floating just over 20 miles off the coast of Venezuela for nearly two years now. Where is this disaster-waiting-to-happen located? I am glad you ask:

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Location of the FSO Nabarima

Yes, that is correct. Right in the middle of Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela, and right smack between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. A few weeks ago now, the case of the Nabarima almost boiled over when the ship began to list (lean) to its side. Had the tanker capsized, over 50 million gallons of oil could have been spilled into the water. Apparently the tanker has since been stabilized and righted, but that is only a short-term fix to the problem. As of right now, the Venezuelan government’s plan is to offload the oil from the tanker, but environmental groups are worried about spills that would likely occur during that process. When oil tankers offload, the first portion of the process is done slower on purpose to ensure that there are no leaks or pressure issues with the tanker. The Nabarima has been left floating for almost two years, it is covered in rust, and if it could not even stay upright on its own then I have serious doubts about its ability to safely undergo the offloading process. Hopefully the process goes smoothly, but I worry that when the Venezuelan government discovers that abandoning a ship is not a good way to maintain it, they will not want to spend even more money to repair it just to offload the oil. Hell, I do not even know if they have the money to offload the oil in the first place.

There is no saying how far oil could travel in the event of a spill, nor the is the extent of the potential damage feasible. According americanprogress.org, it cost upwards of $7 billion to clean up the Exxon Valdez spill. That happened in Alaska, which is not exactly known for its abundance of life compared to the tropics, and that was a spill less than 1/4 the size of what is sitting on the Nabarima. The Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic Ocean all face a massive risk in the Nabarima.

FSO Safer

The FSO Safer, which has been abandoned since 2015

At 403 meters, the FSO Safer is nearly a mile long and weighs over 400,000 tons. On board are about 1.15 million gallons of crude oil. Its ownership could best be described as Iranian-backed Yemeni insurgents. Houthi rebels are Shiite Muslims who rose up against the Sunni government in Yemen and captured Sana’a, the largest city and capital of Yemen. President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi was forced into exile, and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition moved against the rebels. For what it is worth, I lean toward the side of the rebels in this conflict, though I do not yet know enough about the situation to comment extensively.

FSO Safer is anchored off the coast of the port city Al-Hudayduh, which has seen its share of violence during the civil war. Despite repeated efforts by the UN to investigate and repair the tanker, the rebels have ensured that it has not been touched by outside hands in over five years. Water has leaked into the engine room, and those who know more about how oil tankers work than I do fear that the ship could explode any day because of that. Houthi rebels have been holding the tanker hostage, threatening to blow it up themselves on more than one occasion. One stray bullet from the city that hits the ship in the wrong place could create a catastrophe. If the explosion of an oil tanker is not terrifying enough on its own, the location could not be any worse (except for maybe the Nabarima’s location).

The location of the FSO Safer

If the Safer were to spill its contents, it would be beyond disastrous. The Red Sea would forever be tainted. To the south of the Red Sea is the Gulf of Aden which leads to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. To the north is the Suez canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Over 48 million gallons of oil would be floating around some of the most important waterways in the world. Trade would suffer as ships try to navigate the newly ruined waters, not to mention the fact that millions of people rely on those waters for their survival.

Of all groups to present an interesting point about this crisis, the Houthi rebels pointed out that the world was more concerned about the lives of fish than of the Yemeni people. You know what Houthi rebels? That is a really valid point. Yemen is undergoing one of the worst humanitarian crises in human history and it has gotten minimal attention. What is that crisis, you ask? Well, basically the United States gave money to the Saudis to wage war in Yemen. I say in Yemen, not on Yemen, because all Saudi Arabia has done is blow shit up. Ironic, almost sounds like America’s strategy in the middle east…. but I digress. Saudis attacked the Yemenis, who were already in extreme poverty, and now the country is poor and in ruins instead of just poor. The Houthis were correct, it seems, because if it were not for their holding of an environmental dirty bomb hostage, I doubt that I or anyone else reading this would have ever heard of them. I will have to do another article that is focused solely on the Yemeni civil war because it was really just a revolution that Saudi Arabia stuck its nose into. I hope that the violence in Yemen ends and that people can work together to safely minimize the threat of the Safer and to build a new Yemen.

Best Case

Venezuela somehow manages to offload over 50 million gallons of oil without any spillage from the FSO Nabarima. This is unrealistic, and I think minimal spillage is all we can realistically hope for, but this is supposed to be the best case. The Nabarima could be repaired or destroyed, whichever is the right option, but as long as it is not damaged and barely floating with millions of barrels of oil on it.

Saudi Arabia stops being awful to Yemen and the Houthis allow the UN to step in and take control over the FSO Safer. This is not likely either. More likely, a deal will be negotiated involving aid or relief of some sort for the safe surrender of the Safer. I think this is a viable option as well and could actually create the best outcome for both environmentalists and the Yemeni rebels.

Worst Case

Honestly I would not read this part. Hope for the best, share this article, and go on with your day! Last warning! I figure I talk about a lot of depressing topics so I should at least throw a warning in there sometimes.

Let’s talk numbers first. In a study performed to project the costs of the Deepwater Horizon cleanup, it was calculated that it costs ~$630 to clean up a single gallon of oil. Exxon Valdez thus cost about $6,879,600,000 (nearly $7 billion), and remember that was only a fraction of what is sitting on the Nabarima and the Safer. I have included the Deepwater Horizon, which was an oil rig rather than a tanker like the other three, in a chart below to illustrate the cost of one of these spills. Deepwater Horizon is the largest accidental spill of all time, for reference.

DateCatastropheBarrels of OilGallons of OilCost of Cleanup (approx.)
1989Exxon Valdez260,00010,920,000$6,879,600,000
2010Deepwater Horizon4,900,000210,000,000$132,300,000,000
2020FSO Nabarima1,300,00054,600,000$34,398,000,000
2020FSO Safer1,150,00048,300,000$30,429,000,000
Cleanup costs for Exxon and Deepwater are approximations. Costs for Safer and Nabarima are projections.

Individually, the Safer and the Nabarima would each cost over four times what it cost to clean up the Exxon Valdez spill. Aside from $30 billion+ in clean-up costs, the damage to the environment would be unmeasurable. The Nabarima would spill into the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic. Nations that rely on those bodies of water would be decimated by the disaster. Ocean life would die, fishermen’s nets would come up empty, and an entire region of the world would be set back by a decade or more. Safer would spill into the Red Sea, which happens to be one of the more important bodies of water in the world. The water flows into the Mediterranean as well as the Indian Ocean, which means everywhere from Spain and Italy to India and Indonesia could be affected by a spill. The Red Sea is also a crucial shipping route that connects European markets to Asia, and all that shipping would be hindered by cleanup efforts as well as the danger of oil floating on the surface of the water. Tens of millions of people rely on the waters where the Nabarima and the Safer currently sit, and each one of their lives would be put at risk by an explosion of the Safer or the capsizing of the Nabarima.

Why Did I Tell You This?

I am not just a jerk who wanted to ruin your day with bad news, but I would be lying if I said I was not trying to scare you. This is a terrifying situation, but it is also a controllable one. We, as individuals, can be proactive in resolving this issue. Call your representatives and tell them to do something. Obviously our reps are not going to personally take care of either oil tanker, but showing concern for potential environmental disasters puts pressure on leaders because then they know about it. When their re-election campaign rolls around, they will either have ignored a major issue or worked to fix it. More importantly, we can try to push for aid in Yemen. US money is funding a lot of the violence going on there, and if that money dried up, it is likely that the country would be left alone and the Houthi rebels may be willing to negotiate the safe surrender of the Safer. No, the irony is not lost on me that an oil tanker on the verge of an explosion is named the Safer. Please, do not be afraid to call your congressmen and women to bring issues like this up to them. Their job, believe it or not, is to listen to their constituents. I recognize that the environment is not everybody’s biggest concern either, and for those who are more worried about the economic impact, just remember that this disaster could cost upwards of $64 billion, and we have the potential to prevent it before it ever happens. Thank you all for reading, I hope your weekends go well and that we can all take a few minutes to call or email about the FSO Nabarima and the FSO Safer. Protect our oceans, protect our fellow humans, and most importantly, show love.

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