On the 7th March, the Yemeni government called for international assistance in dealing with a potentially serious oil pollution threat in the Red Sea. The case has served to highlight the wider threat from terrestrial and marine oil pollution in Yemen’s civil war and the risks it poses to the Red Sea’s ecology. However dealing with the threat will be impossible without cooperation between the parties to the conflict and the international community.
The SAFER Floating Storage and Offloading terminal
In March, Yemen’s state news agency Saba reported that the Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulmalik al-Mikhlafi had written to the UN Secretary General to appeal for international assistance in dealing with an ageing Floating Storage and Offloading (FSO) terminal moored off the coast of Ras Isa on Yemen’s west coast. The minister argued that the SAFER FSO was in a “bad and deteriorating situation” and threatened an “imminent environmental and humanitarian catastrophe in the Red Sea”. He urged the UN to identify the appropriate capacity for an evaluation of the tanker and for its maintenance.
The SAFER FSO export terminal is a converted single hulled oil tanker (formerly the “ESSO Japan” built in 1976) that began operating as an FSO in 1988. It is owned and managed by Yemen’s national SAFER Exploration & Production Operations Company (SEPOC). The tanker, which is fitted with a “turret” that connects it to a pipeline, allows vessels to moor offshore and transfer oil extracted and processed from SEPOC’s operations in the Marib oil field in central Yemen. The vessel, which is 360m long and 70m wide, contains 34 crude oil tanks of different sizes and volumes, amounting to a total capacity of around 3m barrels. The Marib-Ras Isa pipeline that feeds it stretches for 430km and, under normal operation, transported 200,000 barrels a day, with a maximum capacity of 400,000. The pipeline was built to transport the majority of the output of the 416 wells processed by SEPOC’s Central Production Unit in Marib. The platform and pipeline are Yemen’s main export route for light crude oil.
Beyond the statement from the Yemeni government, the current status of the SAFER FSO is unclear. The oil export terminal off the coast of Ras Isa has been closed since March 2015 after the region fell under the control of Houthi forces. Even if it had been kept open by the Houthis, the UNSC-backed blockade on shipping would turn away tankers seeking to collect oil. The unavailability of diesel fuel has meant that SAFER FSO’s engines have not been started for several years, and the structure has been exposed to humidity and corrosion with little maintenance. Media reports suggest that the Houthis have been unwilling to unload the vessel, although the government have urged them to do so, because they are blocked from exporting the oil it contains. As an old vessel, with a single hull it is likely to be at particular risk from corrosion and in spite of the production interruptions caused by the conflict, it is thought that it may still contain around 1.14m barrels of crude – for comparison the Exxon Valdez disaster involved 260,000 barrels.
The nearby Al-Salif port, which was used for vital imports of foodstuffs and diesel, was closed by the government in summer 2017 after a period of tightened restrictions on arriving tankers importing fuel. Fuel storage areas at the port had also been bombed by the Saudi coalition in 2016. The reason given by the coalition-backed Yemeni government for the port’s closure in 2017 was to protect the “marine environment” from “pollution and oil leaks”, but appeared to be primarily focused on reducing port revenues to the Houthis. While the World Food Programme reports that As Salif port is currently open, it is suspected that the areas of the peninsula that is home to both the port and export terminal have been mined.
Control and exploitation of pipelines
The Marib-Ras Isa pipeline that feeds the Ras Isa terminal has also been closed as it crosses the frontline from government to Houthi controlled areas, although SEPOC has reported that limited pumping has taken place from time to time to prevent corrosion. The pipeline, much of which is in Houthi-controlled Hodeidah province, has a long history of attacks and sabotage that predates the current conflict but which have continued since 2015. Local people have also increasingly turned to bunkering oil from the pipeline, with an incident near Bajel in 2017 killing 12 and injuring 29.
Earlier this year, a leaked document revealed that the Houthis planned to extract the crude remaining in the pipeline. The light Bent crude from the Marib field can be used unprocessed in the diesel generators that are widely used for irrigation pumps in Yemen, and the Houthis allegedly planned to raise US$42m by selling 600,000 barrels to Yemen’s Agricultural Cooperative Union. The plans drew criticism from SEPOC and the government, who argued that extracting oil from points along the pipeline would cause serious harm to a critical part of Yemen’s economic infrastructure and risk damaging the environment. While the extent of the localised pollution caused by attacks on the pipeline and other forms of damage during the conflict has yet to assessed, it seems likely to be significant.
Oil pollution and Red Sea Marine Protected Areas
In 2016, around 4.8m barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum products were shipped through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea daily. While few large oil spills have occurred, smaller spills have been common, whether caused by groundings, transfers between vessels at sea, offshore oil production or discharges of ballast water. Water quality studies have suggested that the Red Sea receives more oil per square kilometre than any other region, in spite of it being designated a Special Area under the MARPOL convention on marine pollution.
Although facing a range of human pressures, the Red Sea remains highly biodiverse, with coral reefs, coastal mangroves and many endemic species. But with restricted water circulation, and fragile marine ecosystems, the Red Sea is particularly vulnerable to oil pollution. The Regional Organisation for the Conservation of the Environment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (PERSGA) – an intergovernmental body dedicated to the conservation of the coastal and marine environments found in the Red Sea, has promoted efforts to strengthen oil spill response systems in Yemen but it is unclear how these have fared from the conflict’s impact on environmental governance. Commentators have suggested that Yemen’s Maritime Affairs Authority, which is tasked with controlling marine pollution, is not at a sufficient state of readiness to fulfil its mandate. It also seems inevitable that the conflict would limit access to affected areas, restrict the availability of equipment necessary to tackle serious spills and would constrain the provision of international assistance in the event of a major spill.
PERSGA has also promoted the development of Marine Protected Areas off the Yemen coast. One of these, Kamaran Island, which was formally declared in 2009, lies around 14km north of where the SAFER FSO is moored. Recent biodiversity assessments of the island have found its mangrove habitats to be largely untouched and in near natural condition, certainly in comparison to many other coastal sites in Yemen that have been affected by felling, clearance for development and pollution. Kamaran’s coral reefs are also in good condition and both the reefs and mangroves support local fisheries. With relatively few Marine Protected Areas, Kamaran, together with the UNESCO heritage site of Socotra, has been the focus of past efforts by the UNDP and others to enhance marine biodiversity protection in Yemen.
The ageing SAFER FSO is not the only source of marine oil pollution risks linked to the conflict. On April 3rd, the Abqaiq, a Saudi registered oil tanker carrying 2m barrels of oil was targeted by the Houthis off the coast of Hodeidah. Although damage was slight, the incident marked a change in strategy for the Houthis, who have generally restricted their attacks to naval vessels. Similarly in 2017 reports began to emerge of the deployment of naval mines and Marine-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (MBIEDs) by the Houthis off the Yemeni coast. While some were moored, the majority appear to have been free floating and these too present serious marine pollution risks in the event of a tanker being struck. With the Saudi coalition looking to retake the port of Hodeidah this year it’s possible the Houthis may intensify attacks against shipping.
A politicised environment
The Yemeni government’s call for assistance over the SAFER FSO is not the first time that the environmental risks from damage to shipping or Yemen’s oil infrastructure have been raised during the conflict. In addition to the warnings over pipeline damage, and the justifications for port closures, earlier this year a Saudi diplomat alleged that the Houthis had seized 19 oil tankers off the coast of Yemen and were planning to destroy the ships to create “an environmental disaster in the Red Sea”. The claims were found to be untrue after an open source investigation by TankerTrackers revealed that the tankers were operating normally.
While it is clear that the ageing, single hulled SAFER FSO may well present a serious pollution risk to Kamaran Island’s Marine Protected Area, the marine ecosystem around Ras Isa and the wider Red Sea, it is less clear what support the international community can provide while the conflict continues. Access for a technical assessment of the vessel is a priority to gauge the threat it poses, and whether any crude oil leaks would be gradual or catastrophic. But the question of how it can be unloaded, and what will happen to the 1.14m barrels of crude it is thought to contain, is unclear. Unloading the vessel would require cooperation between the UN, the Saudi coalition and Yemeni government, and the Houthis who still control the export terminal.
With the conflict ongoing and the environment already subject to politicisation, the chances that the parties to the conflict will reach agreement that the SAFER FSO poses an unacceptable environmental and economic risk, and take concerted action to mitigate those risks, seem slim.
Doug Weir is the Research and Policy Director at the Conflict and Environment Observatory