How The UN Prevented A Massive Oil Spill in the Red Sea

I’ve been covering humanitarian crises, conflict and the United Nations since 2005. It is rare that this beat brings me a genuinely good news story. But today I have one of those stories for you—almost wrapped in a bow.

The background:

Yemen’s civil war escalated sharply in 2015. Houthi rebels captured large swaths of the country and an international coalition lead by Saudi Arabia hit back—sharply and often indiscriminately. For years, Yemen was the worst crisis in the world, regularly teetering on the edge of famine.

In the midst of the fighting, a creaky 47-year-old oil tanker off the coast of a hotly contested port city became stranded. The FSO Safer held a million barrels of oil. But it was decrepit, decaying and sometimes leaky. For the last eight years it sat in the Red Sea like a ticking time-bomb, threatening to unleash one of the worst oil spills in history. For comparison, the FSO Safer held about four times the amount of oil that the Exxon Valdez spilled in 1989 off the coast of Alaska.

The UN estimated that a spill from the SFO Safer would cause an ecological, environmental and humanitarian disaster across the Red Sea region, destroying pristine reefs, and devastating costal fishing communities in Yemen, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea and beyond. It would take 25 years for fish stocks to replenish. The cleanup alone would cost $20 billion.

On Friday, disaster was averted.

On August 11, the last of the oil was pumped out of the FSO Safer into a more seaworthy tanker purchased by the United Nations specifically for this purpose. Disaster did not strike — thanks to a massive political, diplomatic and logistical undertaking by the United Nations.

My podcast guest today, David Gressly, was at the center of it it all. He is an Assistant Secretary-General and the top UN official in Yemen. I spoke with him from Aden, Yemen just hours after the last oil had been pumped out of the FSO Safer. We kick off discussing the circumstances in which the oil became trapped in the old vessel, which is very much part of the story of Yemen’s civil war. We then discuss the delicate diplomacy required to secure access to a leaky tanker in the midst of a civil war, and then the monumental logistical undertaking of such a complex operation.

To be sure, there’s still more to do. The tanker still needs to be hauled away, and there’s some very tricky legal and political questions to be resolved about who, exactly, owns the approximately $100 million worth of oil now sitting in a more seaworthy tanker. But the immediate threat of a devastating oil spill in the Red Sea has been averted.

I’ve been covering the saga of the FSO Safer since 2020, and honestly did not think this story was going to end this well. Needless to say, the United Nations was never set up to empty a decrepit oil tanker in a conflict zone, so this required a good deal of ingenuity on the part of officials like David Gressly. And it paid off to the benefit of all marine life in the Red Sea, coastal communities in one of the poorest regions in the world — and frankly to all of humanity.

If you are looking for a good news story about how the United Nations rose to the occasion to prevent a massive ecological and humanitarian crisis, have a listen.

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Full episode: