Charity appeals normally conjure up images of bucket rattling at village fetes or glitzy gala dinners where the great and the good can display their largesse.
But the UN has a more ambitious request: one supertanker, slightly used, that it can use to stop an impending environmental catastrophe off the coast of Yemen.
The FSO Safer, a giant supertanker moored off the west coast near the entrance to the Red Sea, has long been a ticking time bomb.
The tanker is one of the largest ever built and for more than 30 years has been positioned off Yemen, where it was once used to help store the country’s oil production. But since the war between Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia started in 2015, all maintenance on the vessel has stopped, despite 1mn barrels of crude oil sitting in its hulls.
Without maintenance the ship is without power, so there can be no venting of the fumes from the crude. That’s created an explosive mix inside an already rusting hull. It’s impossible to say exactly when it might break up or explode. But shipping experts, not generally prone to hyperbole, use words such as “imminently” when discussing the prospect of it spewing its contents — four times the volume spilled by the Exxon Valdez off Alaska in 1989 — into the Red Sea.
After years of delicate diplomatic work the UN believes it is close to a solution. The Houthi militia has agreed that salvage work can begin — first stabilising the vessel then transferring its cargo to another, more seaworthy, tanker.
But while around $82mn has been painstakingly raised by the UN to fund the operation, stretching from government donations to crowdfunded contributions, markets move much faster than diplomacy.
Tanker rates have rallied as Russian oil — now largely barred from Europe’s ports — must navigate the long route to Asia instead, tightening the supply of vessels as the same amount of crude travels five times the previous distance. A single voyage from Russia’s Baltic ports to India, which takes a few weeks, can now earn shipowners almost $15mn.
So securing a fully crewed supertanker like a VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier) for an indefinite time will cost far more than is in the UN’s $82mn biscuit tin. Last May, the operation was estimated to cost in excess of $140mn and costs have risen since then.
Further fundraising will take time the UN might not have. So the unconventional appeal has gone out, supported by shipping publication Lloyd’s List, for the industry to step up and help secure a supertanker for the job, either as a donation or at a price the UN can afford. Talks between industry participants and the UN are well under way but an arrangement to secure a tanker has not yet been finalised, according to people familiar with the matter.
It’s an appeal designed to speak to more than just the shipping industry’s better nature. In the event of a spill caused by the FSO Safer, the UN estimates the clean-up bill could reach at least $20bn.
But the shipping industry itself would face additional costs. Tanker owners cannot allow their vessels to pass through highly polluted waterways given the dangers to cargo and crew. If easy access through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal was restricted by a spill from the FSO Safer, requiring detours around Africa, the costs for the industry would quickly rise.
It is a classic example of a problem that has existed so long that no one seems quite prepared to ever get around to actually addressing it. But a catastrophe delayed is still a catastrophe when it finally occurs.
You might ask why world governments don’t just provide a tanker, but the delicate politics of the conflict make that almost impossible, according to people close to the talks.
Buying the oil outright is not really an option when the Houthi militia that controls it is seen as a terrorist organisation by states including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia, which have lobbied the US to apply the same designation.
So the industry needs to help find a way through. Tanker operators are enjoying a windfall as a consequence of the war in Ukraine. Collectively it should not be beyond the will of a multibillion-dollar industry to find a way to provide one tanker suitable for the job.
The potential costs to the environment are reason enough to act. But for the shipping industry this is very much in its interests, too.