UN Scrambles, Canada Dawdles on Bid to Prevent $20B Oil Spill Disaster


Mitchell Beer

Energy Mix Productions


With public and political attention riveted by the year’s most obvious international crises, from local climate disasters to Russia’s war in Ukraine, governments in Canada and elsewhere are running out of time to address a preventable environmental calamity that would take decades to reverse and undercut resilience in one of the world’s most volatile regions.

To remove more than a million barrels of oil from the FSO Safer, a disabled supertanker in the Red Sea, before the vessel breaks up or explodes, a United Nations agency launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise some of the US$20 million it still needs to pay for the work. Against the drop in a financial bucket required to fund the mission, the costs of failure are unimaginable:

  • $20 billion in environmental damage along the coasts of Yemen, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and likely beyond.
  • Ravaged fish populations that would take decades to recover.
  • An estimated 200,000 families with their livelihoods curtailed or destroyed, in a region already reeling from war, drought, and famine.

Incredibly, some potential donors are telling the UN office in Sana’a, Yemen they can’t or won’t fund their share of the salvage operation because they don’t have the right budget lines to help prevent a disaster. The Safer, described as a “floating time bomb”, is carrying four times as much crude oil as the doomed Exxon Valdez. And if it actually began releasing its toxic cargo, some of those same countries could step up in a heartbeat with emergency relief, even if it meant taking the money out of other urgent international priorities.

But with time running out before seasonal conditions put the ship at even greater risk, the UN is still scrambling to supplement the $60 million it has raised so far for the emergency response.

“This isn’t a question of a contingency,” stressed David Gressly, the UN’s resident coordinator/ humanitarian coordinator for Yemen. It’s only a question of when. It’s already been seven years without any maintenance, except for a small crew that lives on the vessel. They’re the ones keeping this thing afloat, doing all the emergency repairs they can, without the equipment or the skills to do major repairs. They’re doing what they can to keep the engine room clear of water so it doesn’t capsize. They’re taking the risk while the rest of us try to find the money to stop it.”

One observer familiar with the Safer and its condition said the six-member crew is holding the ship together “with band-aids and gaffer tape”.

Already, funding delays have pushed at least part of the operation into a season of high winds and currents that begins in October.

“That’s when the peak probability of a breakup takes place,” Gressly said. “That’s why we’re pushing to get the funding now, so we don’t get into that period one more time.”

At a UN-sponsored pledging conference in May, Gressly said the Netherlands led the way among donor countries with a contribution of €7.5 million and active outreach to other governments, while Germany and the United States have been active and helpful.

Canada, however, had no plans to contribute. Ottawa “is not in a position to provide funding to support the salvage of the FSO Safer at this time,” a spokesperson told CBC News at the time.

In an email nearly two months later, Global Affairs Canada official Geneviève Tremblay told The Energy Mix that “Canada continues to engage with the Netherlands on this initiative but no decision has been made at this time regarding participation or funding.”

Tremblay, the department’s international development spokesperson, did not answer questions on how Canada had weighed the cost of the salvage against the cost of an oil spill disaster, or on how officials had assessed the potential cost to Canada of a failure to complete the emergency operation in time—based on the added instability it would create in the region, the increase in food insecurity, and the almost certain increase in global migration numbers.

Nor did she comment on whether the lack of a usable budget line was the obstacle to Canada taking action.