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A U.N. operation to prevent a disastrous oil spill is underway in the Red Sea


It's been described as a ticking time bomb - a decaying oil tanker is moored off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea. It hasn't been maintained since 2015 due to the country's civil war, and some fear the vessel could explode or break apart, causing an environmental catastrophe. But now a U.N. salvage operation is underway to remove more than a million barrels of oil from the tanker. Doug Weir is research and policy director of the Conflict and Environment Observatory, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

DOUG WEIR: Thank you. Great to be with you.

RASCOE: So tell us more about this tanker. How did it end up in this situation? Like, who is in control in that part of the country where this tanker is?

WEIR: Yeah. So this tanker is a floating offshore oil terminal, essentially. So it's been moored in place since 1987. The tanker itself was made the same year that I was born, I think, so it's like 47 years old. And it was connected to a pipeline which brought in oil from inland in Yemen. And then tankers would come up alongside and export it, and it would go off overseas. So it's not very far offshore. It's like nine kilometers offshore, about six miles. The land is under control of the Houthi rebels, but the sea and the coast was under control of the Saudi naval forces.

One of the key issues with these tankers - if you imagine you have these huge tanks of oil and when they're warm, they let off explosive gases. And one of the things which tankers do, they pump inert gases into these chambers to keep these explosive gases down. And because no diesel fuel had been getting to the tanker, these pumps hadn't been running. And so there's a lot of concern that these explosive gases would have built up in addition to, you know, just day to day corrosion.

RASCOE: If there had been an oil spill, how devastating would that have been?

WEIR: Yeah, I mean, it's potentially catastrophic, right? This is about four times more than the Exxon Valdez, which sank off Alaska, contained. There was a lot of modeling done to try and figure out where a spill would go. And it could potentially affect 900km of the Yemeni coastline. So this is going to affect fisheries. It would block the port of Hodeidah, which is where all the humanitarian aid gets into Yemen, desalination plants on the Saudi coast. So for all the literal Red Sea countries, this is going to be potentially problematic.

And even just nearby, there's a marine protected area. There are coral reefs. There are mangroves. So this is potentially a huge problem. There'd be contamination of aquifers, huge knock-on effects on fisheries and livelihoods. It's this - yeah - environmental and humanitarian catastrophe, potentially.

RASCOE: And now the U.N. is getting access to the tanker. So what changed to allow this to happen?

WEIR: Well, it has been an extremely complex situation politically. Essentially the U.N. couldn't go in and do anything without the say-so of the Houthis. And that say-so has taken a huge amount of time. This issue has been discussed in the U.N. Security Council on an almost monthly basis for a number of years now. The fate of the vessel and access to it became a kind of bargaining chip in the conflict between - in the peace agreement. And so it's not just been a simple technical job. It's become this quite politicized situation. In addition to, where does the money come from? Who is responsible for the salvage operation, which at the moment is still $30 million short and it's over 130 million that we're already spending?

RASCOE: And so what do we expect to happen over the coming days?

WEIR: Yeah. So the salvage team, a Dutch salvage team - in the last couple of days, they've been getting on board. They've been checking for hazardous and toxic gases to make sure it's safe for them to get on board and to get alongside. They're going to be checking the safety of the fuel tanks, essentially making the vessel as safe as they can for this other tanker, which is currently in Djibouti, which is going to come up alongside during - in the next couple of weeks, and then they'll start pumping the oil from there onto this replacement vessel. After that, they need to clean out the oil tanks, which have got a lot of scuzz (ph) on the bottom and up the sides and things.

RASCOE: I know that you said that the U.N. is bringing a whole new tanker to take this oil from the old tanker, and that new tanker is going to stay in place. Is there a plan to maintain that tanker so, you know, you don't end up in this position again?

WEIR: That's a really good question. I think at the moment, the future trajectory of this vessel, which is called the Nautica, which is a replacement - yeah - will depend very much on the trajectory of the conflict and the current peace deal in Yemen. So I'm assuming it will be under the management of the state oil company and hopefully at this point it will be able to be fueled on a regular basis to ensure that it can be kept in a safe condition.

RASCOE: That's Doug Weir from the Conflict and Environment Observatory. Thank you so much for joining us.

WEIR: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.