Marine ecosystems endangered by tanker sabotage in the Gulf

The Deepwater Horizon explosion, left, had catastrophic environmental consequences. (Shutterstock)
Updated 28 May 2019

Marine ecosystems endangered by tanker sabotage in the Gulf

  • Satellite images have shown an oil slick from one of the vessels targeted near UAE's Fujairah port
  • Sabotaging of oil tankers in the Gulf seen as a threat to marine life and biodiversity

DUBAI: Sabotage attacks targeting four oil tankers off the coast of the UAE’s Fujairah port earlier this month not only highlighted a new threat to maritime traffic but also prompted a more immediate concern for environmentalists — the damage to marine ecosystems.

The warning comes after satellite imagery from the US-based Planet Labs and Finnish company Iceye showed oil leaking from the Saudi VLCC supertanker Amjad — one of the four vessels targeted — and spreading over a large area north of the Khor Fakkan section of the Arabian Gulf, with ocean trackers now monitoring the waters to determine the potential environmental aftermath of the incidents.

The attacks took place on May 12 east of Fujairah port, outside the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway through which most Gulf oil exports pass and which Iran has threatened to block in the event of a military confrontation with the US. The attacks drew strong condemnation from the Arab League and governments around the world.




A photograph captured on May 14 by the European Space Agency shows oil leaking after the tanker attack in the Arabian Gulf. (ESA photo)

The ship was empty of crude oil, but it was carrying fuel oil onboard. The oil spill is estimated to be about 235 barrels, according to TankerTrackers.com, an oil tanker tracking service.

Its co-founder, Samir Madani, told Arab News: “We spotted this fuel oil spill on May 17 (the day after the image was captured) on Planet Labs satellite imagery (they have 300 satellites lined up in an orbit to line-scan the Earth’s surface on a daily basis) but waited a few more days before being able to confirm that it wasn’t something else. As we saw that on May 20, the spill had started dispersing over a larger area north of Khor Fakkan.”

Now experts have warned that the attacks may also threaten marine life and biodiversity.

Madani said that depending on the grade of oil, it will either float or sink based on density, but warned that it could have a longer-term impact on the surrounding marine environment.

“Fuel oil is heavier than the average barrel of crude oil, so there is a chance that it’ll settle to the bottom and pollute the marine life,” he said. “Crude oil can be treated with dispersants such as we’ve seen in incidents in Kuwait, but we don’t have enough knowledge of what impact such chemicals have on marine life, either.”

The radar images captured by Iceye’s X2 satellite also detected a long trail leading from the Amjad two days after the attack, although it cannot state how much oil was present. “Oil on top of seawater is visible on radar satellite imaging because it changes the way the water surface reflects radio waves,” explained Iceye CEO Rafal Modrzewski.  




Iceye CEO Rafal Modrzewski

“Oil forms a layer on top of the seawater. This changes the water’s viscosity, flattening and making the surface smoother. As a result, oil on water appears on the image as a dark patch.”

According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), oil tankers transport some 2,900 million tons of crude oil and oil products every year around the world by sea. Most of the time, oil is transported quietly and safely. Measures introduced by the IMO have helped to ensure that most oil tankers are operated safely and are constructed to reduce the amount of oil spilled in the event of an accident.

However, when an accident involving ships or oil rigs occurs, the ocean water becomes contaminated by liquid petroleum hydrocarbon, with oils spills not only killing fish, marine mammals and birds but also causing damage to beaches and wildlife habitats. 

“We run into spills all the time, and they are mostly fuel oil,” said Madani. “The most notorious area in the Gulf region is off the coast of Iraq, at the Umm Qasr anchorage, where there are a lot of ship-to-ship transfers of fuel oil, and things get sloppy when there’s no third vessel (tugboat) to quarantine the spill with the help of an oil boom.”

WORLD’S BIGGEST OIL SPILLS

1. DEEPWATER HORIZON Almost a decade on, it is still considered to be the largest oil spill in the petroleum industry’s history. In 2010, the accident began after a spill from a seafloor oil gusher, leading to the explosion of the BP oil rig, Deepwater Horizon, in its Macondo Prospect. An estimated 53,000 barrels flowed into the Gulf of Mexico every day for more than three months, killing more than 82,000 birds, 25,900 marine mammals, 6,000 sea turtles and tens of thousands of fish.

2. GULF WAR In 1991, Iraqi forces opened valves at the Sea Island oil terminal and dumped oil from several tankers into the Arabian Gulf. About 240 million gallons of oil were believed to have been discharged, killing hundreds of fish and marine mammals.

3. IXTOC I An exploratory oil well being drilled in the Bay of Campeche off the Gulf of Mexico, Ixtoc 1 suffered a blowout in 1979, and 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil were discharged into the sea over 10 months. The oil slick, which measured about 1,100 square miles, surrounded Rancho Nuevo, a nesting site for sea turtles.

4. ATLANTIC EXPRESS In 1979, two oil tankers collided in the Caribbean Sea during a tropical storm, causing the supertankers — the Atlantic Empress and Aegean Captain — to leak their cargo. According to reports, around 88.3 million gallons of crude oil were discharged into the sea, making it the world’s largest ship-sourced oil spill.

5. NOWRUZ FIELD During the Iran-Iraq war in 1983, an oil tanker hit the Nowruz Field platform in the Arabian Gulf, leading to a major spill. It is estimated that about 80 million gallons of oil flowed into the Gulf during a seven-month period, causing harm to marine life.

The waters of the Gulf have been affected a number of times in recent years, with Fujairah being pinpointed as a site that has had tankers causing oil spills; however, local measures have seen the number of incidents decrease.

Oil spills have long been one of the major concerns of the maritime world. According to Marine Insight, a substantial spill “can completely disturb an entire ecosystem for a substantial period of time.” It can take month-long oil cleaning operations to bring the areas back to normality.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the incidents near Fujairah port, the main shipping route linking Middle East oil producers with the rest of the world. At any one time, many tens of ships will be anchored a few nautical miles from the port.

The official Saudi Press Agency reported the confirmation of the attack on the two vessels, quoting the Saudi Energy Minister. “Two Saudi oil tankers were subjected to a sabotage attack in the exclusive economic zone of the United Arab Emirates, off the coast of the Emirate of Fujairah, while on their way to cross into the Arabian Gulf,” SPA quoted Khalid Al-Falih as saying.

According to the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, which provides advice on effective response to spills, when oil is spilled at sea it normally spreads out and moves on the sea surface with wind and current while undergoing a number of chemical and physical changes. These processes are collectively termed weathering and determine the fate of the oil. 

Some of these processes, such as natural dispersion of the oil into the water, lead to the removal of the oil from the sea surface, and facilitate its natural breakdown in the marine environment. 




The oil spill had catastrophic environmental consequences. (Shutterstock image)

“Others, particularly the formation of water-in-oil emulsions, cause the oil to become more persistent, and remain at sea or on the shoreline for prolonged periods of time,” the group says on its website. “The speed and relative importance of the processes depend on factors such as the quantity spilled, the oil’s initial physical and chemical characteristics, weather and sea conditions, and whether the oil remains at sea or is washed ashore.”

Nicolas Tamic, deputy manager at Cedre, a group of international experts in accidental water pollution, said it is now a waiting game. “Some (oil) may biodegradate and some not. The first thing to do is to collect and analyze the oil involved. Without this necessary data, it is impossible to predict the behavior of the oil at sea … Sunrays may modify the shape of the slicks. Instead of staying a sole slick, it is going to disintegrate into smaller parts. 

“Moreover, a phenomenon called emulsification is going to happen. Water comes ‘into’ oil, and it is going to be heavier. The consequence is that its viscosity will change.”

Only then, said Tamic, will the exact results on the surrounding environment and marine life become clear. 


How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

Updated 21 September 2020

How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

  • Houthi refusal of passage to experts to carry out repairs has raised specter of a floating time bomb
  • Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers to discuss ways to avoid a catastrophe

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: Until the Iran-backed Houthi militia seized Yemen’s western port city of Hodeidah in late 2014, foreign and local experts had been regularly visiting a 45-year-old oil tanker moored in the Red Sea.

It was a practice that ensured that the FSO Safer, abandoned just a few kilometers off Yemen’s coast, did not touch off a disaster by exploding or sinking and spilling oil. But having witnessed the devastation caused by the Aug. 4 blast in Beirut and taken its lessons to heart, the Arab world cannot afford to ignore the imminent danger posed by Houthi stalling tactics.

Expressing concerns about the condition of the vessel, Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers on Monday. According to a statement issued on Sunday by Kamal Hassan, assistant secretary-general and head of the Economic Affairs Sector at the Arab League, the aim of the special session is to discuss ways and mechanisms to activate Resolution No. 582, which was adopted by the Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for Environmental Affairs in Oct. 2019.

The objective is to “find an appropriate solution to avoid an environmental catastrophe due to the failure to maintain the oil ship Safer anchored off the Ras Issa oil port in the Red Sea since 2015.”

When the Houthi militia gained control of Hodeidah, the FSO Safer was carrying 1.1 million barrels of oil, or almost half of its capacity, according to local officials. No sooner had the fighters tightened their grip on the city than technical experts fled the area, realizing that it had become too dangerous for them to stay on.

Over the past two years, the FSO Safer has attracted regional as well as international attention on and off, thanks in part to the regular appearance on social media of photos of rusting pipes and water leaking into the engine rooms, raising the specter of a floating powder keg.

INNUMBER

45 Age of oil tanker FSO Safer

1.1m Barrels of crude oil in tanker

During the same period, Yemeni government officials, environmentalists and foreign diplomats have sounded the alarm over possible outcomes that could both exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and take a heavy environmental toll on the Red Sea littoral states.

The UN has suggested sending a team of experts to Hodeidah to assess the damage to the FSO Safer, but the Houthi militia, who want to pocket the proceeds from sale of the oil, have rejected the proposal. The oil in the FSO Safer’s storage tanks was once estimated to be worth $40 million, but its value now may be less than half of that as crude prices have fallen a lot since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to reports.

The internationally recognized government of Yemen has repeatedly accused the Houthi militia of using the decaying tanker as a bargaining chip, citing demands such as the resumption of salaries for public servants in areas under its control, removal of government forces from Hodeidah, and more relaxed inspection of ships bound for the port.

An oil spill would devastate the livelihoods of nearly four million Yemeni people, with fishing stocks taking 25 years to recover. (AFP)

In July, the government requested the UN Security Council to convene an urgent session to discuss the Safer issue amid concern that time was running out. In almost all their meetings with foreign envoys and diplomats, Yemeni officials bring up the matter of the tanker and the attendant risk of an environmental disaster in the Red Sea. For the past several months, Western and Arab diplomats, UN officials, aid organizations and experts too have underscored the urgency of breaking the deadlock in order to avert a human, economic and environmental catastrophe.

In July, the UN described the rusting tanker as a “ticking time bomb,” adding that the tanker’s cargo of oil could cause an environmental disaster four times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska. Last week, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added his voice to the growing concern over the deadlock by appealing to the Houthi militia to give UN experts access to the oil tanker.

As for the Trump administration, its views were conveyed via a tweet by the US mission to the UN that said: “The US calls on the Houthis to cease obstruction and interference in aid ops and fuel imports. We urge the Houthis to cease their assault on religious freedom and to permit UN technical teams immediate, unconditional access to the Safer oil tanker.”

In comments to Arab News in June, Michael Aron, the British ambassador to Yemen, said unless the Houthi leadership allowed experts to address the FSO Safer’s problems, the potential damage to the environment is far greater than that caused by the recent spillage of 20,000 tons of fuel in Russia’s Siberia. “The threat to the environment in the Red Sea is enormous, and will impact on all the countries who share this coastline,” he said.

Independent researchers too say the condition of Safer is deeply concerning. In a paper for the Atlantic Council in 2019 entitled “Why the massive floating bomb in the Red Sea needs urgent attention,” energy experts Dr. Ian Ralby, Dr. David Soud and Rohini Ralby said the potential consequences of an oil-tanker disaster in the area include an end to the two-year ceasefire in Hodeidah and an aggravation of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

“The risk of explosion increases by the day, and if that were to happen, not only would it damage or sink any ships in the vicinity, but it would create an environmental crisis roughly four and a half times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” the three scientists said. Other experts have speculated that just a stray bullet from an exchange of fire between rival factions could trigger off an explosion of the FSO Safer’s oil cargo.

Yemeni NGO Holm Akhdar says 126,000 people working in the fishing industry could lose their jobs in the case of a disaster.

“Even worse, given the complexity of this war, an errant bullet or shell from any one of the combatants could trigger a blast as large as Beirut’s August 4th disaster, prompting a historic oil spill,” Dave Harden, managing director of Georgetown Strategy Group, wrote in an op-ed in The Hill last month. He added: “Clean-up efforts would be daunting — given the insecurity of being in a war zone and the additional health risks from COVID-19.”

Similar concerns have been expressed by local government officials and fishermen in Hodeidah. Waleed Al-Qudaimi, deputy governor of Hodeidah, said that any spillage from the FSO Safer would create a humanitarian crisis as severe as the one caused by the Houthi insurgency.

“It (the oil spill) will add an additional burden that will affect Yemen for the next decades, deprive thousands of people of their jobs and destroy marine biodiversity in Yemeni waters,” he said. Al-Qudaimi appealed to the international community to keep up pressure on the militia to allow maintenance work to be carried out.

For a country reeling from a combination of conflict, humanitarian crisis, plunging currency and crumbling economy, repairs to an abandoned oil tanker off its coast might not carry the ring of urgency normally associated with a major disaster.

But now that the world knows what happened when Lebanese officials ignored warnings for years over a cache of highly explosive material stored in a Beirut port warehouse, the importance of resolving the FSO Safer issue cannot be overstated.

 

Twitter: @saeedalBatati