Tuesday, November 9, 2021

The Making of an Oil Spill

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Earth & Space Science, Earth Systems, Society, Culture, Pollution, Sustainability

Ed Hessler

While I know better, I like to think I'm somewhat informed on world affairs. I'm not as the following essay I'm going to comment on showed me. One result of reading it is I have a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, if what Ed Caesar writes about in the October 8, 2021 issue of The New Yorker is solved before it becomes a long-term ecological, economic and social disaster.

Caeser's article is about the future of a ship, one dead in the water, re-purposed many years ago to be a "floating storage-and-off-loading facility" for oil. The ship is the now decrepit Safer, moored, as it has been, for about 45 years, some 5 miles off the shore of Yemen (already a nation with the world's worst humanitarian crisis). 

The Safer, an oil transfer station, is about 5 miles from the Yemen port of Hodeidah and currently stores some 1,000,000 barrels of oil. It has several futures if nothing is done: explode, suffer a catastrophic leak or sink. For some perspective, the Exxon Valdez  dumped about 250,000 barrels of oil off Alaska in 1989, and the Torrey Canyon "which struck rocks off the coast of Cornwell in 1967 dumped about 800,000 barrels of crude oil. By the way, Caesar reports that many experts expect the Safer to sink and it is not likely to stay in one piece, breaking up in descent and/or being pushed to on shore rocks to be further pounded and broken.

You will recall that Saddam Hussein, in 1991," released "some eleven million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf, to stop a marine assault by the United States. The oil spill was the largest in history, and in some places the slick was five inches this. It polluted 500 miles of the Saudi coast, killing tens of thousands of seabirds, poisoning the water column, and creating lasting damage. '''Twelve years after this spill, more than eight million cubic metres (35,314,666,572,222 cubic feet) of oily sediment remained on the Saudi shoreline."

The Safer was once an "ultra large crude carrier," owned by Exxon and named Exxon Japan. To give you an idea of its size, to go from full speed to stop would take about 15 minutes and two miles of clear sea and like an iceberg, most of it is below water (about 70 feet). These ships were once the subject of a series in the The New Yorker which became a popular book, Supership (1974)--money, oil, the oceans and the ocean's ecosystems.  Mostert was a passenger on a medium-sized supership while he was collecting information for his story. These fragile, barge-like ships were soon mothballed (1982) and sold for scrap.

The Safer is "maintained" by a skeleton crew of seven (once 50, the accommodations were described by one employee "as well appointed as a 'five-star hotel."), its electricity is supplied by two generators which provide minimal services--air conditioning is not one (temperatures often exceed 120 F below decks) but charging computers is. The maintenance budget once 20 million/year is zero. 

The ship includes a clever design. The mooring system rotates the ship when the winds become strong enough to turn it. The purpose is to reduce strain on the hull. This is vividly and garishly illustrated, appropriate to the situation, in a full page painting of the moored Safer in Caesar's article

Caeser tells readers about the decision not to construct a permanent pumping station after oil was discovered in Yemen in the early 1980s. The Hunt Oil Company (TX) was given a 15-year lease and the construction of a permanent pumping station would have taken too much time and been too costly.  In the end the lease was not renewed and the Yemen state-run oil company known as SEPOC took over the administration of the ship and pipeline and a start was made on the construction of an onshore oil terminal which was never completed.  

As you know there was a coup in Yemen which has led to a brutal and continuing conflict. The Houthis who are Zaydi Shiites, "a minority of a minority," overthrew the Sunni government, accused by the Houthis of massive financial corruption "and colluding with imperialist enemies.  Their motto is "God is great, death to the U.S., death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory for Islam." 

The threat of an explosion aboard the Safer is real. One, that Caesar describes is known as "'inerting,' in which inert gases are pumped into the tanks where the crude is stored to neutralize flammable hydrocarbons that rise off the oils. Today it is a routine safety measure but no longer practiced on the Safer. The ship is also no longer inspected for safety. An engine room leak discovered on May 27, 2020 was repaired but only temporarily. Water is still being pumped out today "using power from the on-deck generators." In addition a random spark or unintended gunshot could set an explosion off.

The threat of a catastrophic leak includes damage to the unique ecosystem of the Red Sea (it is sometimes called "the Baby Ocean"), including corals, unique marine life (endemics) found nowhere else on the glove and mangrove ecosystems,  the closing of the port at Hodeidah, a total collapse of a fishing industry already "ravaged by war," the closing of shipping access to the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden,  a Saudi desalination plant ("About half of Saudi Arabia's drinking water is produced by desalination."),  and                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      even more deaths from further shortages of food, medicine, and fuel. And should the port of Hodeidah be closed for a prolonged period (likely), it "might precipitate a famine unprecedented in scale in the twenty-first century. Caesar describes the complex political situation--made me think of Humpty Dumpty. "It is extremely unlikely that the Yemen of 2014 will ever be put back together." 

The economic consequences would be profound. When "the container ship Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week this past March, the incident cost about a billion dollars a day. Ships rarely traverse oil-contaminated waters, especially when a clean-up is in progress, and their insurance can be imperiled if they do. A spill from the Safer could take months to clear, imposing a toll of tens of billions of dollars on the shipping business and the industries it services." The percentage of ship traffic--about 10% of the world's shipping according to Caesar, is not insignificant. One estimate on clean-up says it "could cost 20 billion dollars."

Several plans for off-loading the oil have been proposed, including a military version, a commercial venture, and Iran has offered ship-to-ship transfer of oil, all this in an area of deep unrest, mistrust,and hatred. Caesar notes that "the tension surrounding the Safer crisis is generated as much by different calibrations of times as by different  assessments of risk. In an instant, a lead, a crack, or a spark could cause a disaster," and here is a hooker, "even in the best case scenario any solutions would take months to execute. ... A spare supertanker cannot be summoned like a taxi. Unexpected things can happen in a war zone. Because of all these conflicting scenarios with unclear time frames, the Safer crisis feels at once urgent and endless. ... The crisis unfolds at the speed of rust." (emphasis mine)

What it requires is that "every party (be) committed to a resolution of the crisis." After reading Caesar's essay this seems a very tall order. Caesar notes that "all the oil could be removed from the Safter within a month or so" if parties could agree.  But according to "one view...the more the international community fixated on protecting the Safer the more strategically valuable the ship became to the Houthis. Yemen was a failed state. At some point, the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition (very long Wiki entry) would need to reach a peace agreement. Until then, the Safer was an ace up the Houthis' sleeve."

Do yourself a favor and read this comprehensive, truly frightening, and well-researched story by Mr. Caesar. He provides considerable, indeed necessary context for understanding the situation and what is involved.  My short thumbnail sketch is made in the hope that you will read it to learn more about this geopolitical crisis. There you will find the illustration referred to above as well as a map of the region; the geography must be understand even though the map is a broad view of the region, it helps in understanding the current situation.

Caesar closes with a perfect quote. In response to a question of a Saudi army officer about "what an oil spill would mean for his region," the officer, "without emotion," responded "'A huge catastrophe." Many words could have been a part of any response but the effect of these three is glaring, stark-naked, and bleak. That quote forced a return to the opening sentence. "Soon, a vast, decrepit oil tanker in the Red Sea will likely sink, catch fire, or explode."


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