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FSO Safer: The ship-to-ship transfer is complete
Just the sludge remains. A recap of the oil transfer from the Safer to the Yemen.
The UN has welcome news and other updates
After the building up of anticipation during June and July regarding the start of the ship-to-ship oil transfer from the Safer to the replacement Yemen (formerly Nautica) - a period beset by delays - it was very welcome news when it was announced that the actual pumping of oil had begun at 10.45 Yemen time on Tuesday, 25 July.
As the team from SMIT Salvage commenced the technical aspects of a dangerous operation expected to take between two to three weeks, lowering hydraulic pumps into the storage tanks while a chemist monitored for safe levels of inert gases, the UN provided some other updates.
According to David Gressly, by September a catenary anchor leg mooring (CALM) buoy should be delivered and installed, to which the replacement Yemen would be tethered allowing it to connect to a pipeline for oil transport.1
Regarding the sale of the oil being transferred between ships - a topic which had effectively been parked for a later stage when agreement had been reached in 2022 for the UN Operational Plan to go ahead - UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner said the sale “is indeed on the horizon” and indicated that talks with both sides in Yemen had been held. Samples of the oil in question had apparently been sent to a laboratory for testing of its quality and viability for sale.
The key message - consistent with statements made in the past - was that getting oil onto a more secure vessel was the “top priority”, with David Gressly (diplomatically) adding:
“We have now bought a great deal of time to work out legal issues, the issues among the parties themselves on how to sell and what for …. So, we'll continue to work on that and encourage the parties to find a solution to eventually removing the oil, ideally for the benefit of the people of Yemen. That's what we all want to see.”
The oil transfer process reaches halfway by 2 August
While previously no news on the Safer has not necessarily been good news, once the actual pumping of oil had begun, a steady stream of updates became available online and on social media.
On 28 July, Boskalis posted that the “oil transfer is progressing well” and provided some video footage showing the preparation of the Yemen for the oil transfer (including the installation and lowering off its side of giant pneumatic fenders to prevent the two ships from touching each other), its mooring alongside the Safer with the assistance of tugboats, the lowering of an oil boom into the water around the vessels in case of a spill, the insertion of hydraulic pumps into the storage tanks, and the start of the pumping of the oil from the Safer to the Yemen.
UNDP also advised that day - Day 4 - that 223,000 barrels had been transferred so far, which amounted to around 20% of the total so far.
On Day 6 - 30 July - the UNDP advised that two central tanks had now been emptied. The assumed oil storage tank layout from the "UNOPS Operations Related to FSO Safer Assessment and Light Maintenance - Scope of Work" document (Nov 2020) can be seen below:
Keeping the update momentum going, UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner advised on 31 July (Day 7) that over 360,000 barrels or around one-third (33%) had been transferred. And then on 2 August (Day 9), just over a week after the commencement of the operation, the half-way mark had been achieved (around 570,000 barrels).
The pace continues
The next week sees the the achievement of a nice regular rhythm, as 60% (680,000 barrels) is reached on 3 August (Day 10), 71% (824,179 barrels) by 6 August (Day 13) and 80% (~ 900,000 barrels) on 8 August (Day 15) announced by the UNDP on X (formerly Twitter).
News reports cited Yemen’s Minister of Transport Abdul-Salam Humaid on 9 August (Day 16) to the effect that 94% (1,083,285 barrels) have now been pumped from the Safer. This was superseded by Arab News who reported that 1,105,000 barrels or 96% had been pumped out as at 9am on Wednesday, 9 August.
The goal is achieved
And then the announcement that we have all been waiting for was made by David Gressly, the public face of the UN effort to co-ordinate the operation: the main transfer of the oil had been completed on Friday, 11 August (Day 18) at 18:00 local time.
And by Achim Steiner, Administrator of the organisation that had been project managing the operation, the UNDP:
They also released the following statements.
Today is a great milestone. A remarkable global coalition came together under the UN umbrella to prevent the worst-case scenario of a catastrophic oil spill in the Red Sea. We need to finish the work the UN started. The installation of a CALM buoy to which the replacement vessel will be safely tethered is the next crucial step.
Today is a proud moment for the many people across the UN System as well as our donors and partners who have worked tirelessly over the past months and years to avert a disaster in a country already vulnerable following protracted conflict. There is still work to be done, but today we can say with confidence that the immediate threat of a spill has been averted.
In the UNDP press release that accompanied the announcement, it is made clear that as much oil as possible had been extracted but there was still 2% left of sediment left, which would be dealt with as part of the cleaning of the storage tanks phase which was to occur next. And speaking of….
Recap of next steps
With the potentially useable oil now transferred onto the Yemen and the main danger over (for now), there are still some key steps left according to the official UN Operational Plan; here is a recap, along with what we know of their progress:
De-mucking of residual oil
SMIT has indicated (along with the UN - see above) that the clearing of the remaining layer of thick oil is due to occur after the main oil transfer process is complete. Originally scheduled for the two and a half week period between 7 July and 23 July, this will involve cleaning of thick sludge, scrubbing of storage tanks and then transfer of the resulting dirty water to the Yemen.
Installation of CALM buoy
As mentioned in the opening, the UN has indicated sometime in September for this to occur.
Scrapping of Safer
The budget has unbelievably still not been completely raised for the operation, relying on bridge financing which still needs to be repaid. Around US$20 million is still required.
Sale of Oil
Also as previously raised, there have apparently been talks by the UN with the Houthis and the Yemen government about the potential sale of the oil, and it sounds promising, but nothing concrete has been announced; we will, as with everything related to the Safer story, have to see it to believe it.
There is also the question of who owns the oil and how it would get split up, considering the Houthis control the area and thus the oil.
Future of the replacement Yemen tanker
Concerns have been raised about the suitability of the 15-year old VLCC in the harsh Red Sea environment, as well as it being under control of the Houthis; this will be an ongoing issue in the medium- to long-term.
But let this not take away from what has been a momentous day, which many who have been following this thought they may never see.
While a specialised FSO - Floating Storage and Offloading vessel for oil - was an option in the original UN operational plan and had a timeline of 18 months associated with its implementation, a lack of their availability meant that another cited option, the CALM buoy, was ultimately turned to.