A state of environmental emergency is being called for by fishermen in Trinidad and Tobago over a sinking oil tanker with 1.3 million barrels of oil.
If the oil spills, it would threaten the entire Southern Caribbean. At 264 meters in length and a capacity of 1.4 million barrels, the spill would be five times worse than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989, which was the worst in history until the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon.
Officials have been criticized for allowing the situation to evolve for three months without taking sufficient action. The Nabarima is a Venezuelan oil tanker but part-operated by Italian energy giant, $55 billion ENI, and has been caught up in US sanctions since disputed elections questioned the legitimacy of the Venezuelan President. The tilting had been of concern since it was first noticed in July and crews later discovered water leaking on board. The situation has gotten progressively worse since then.
It was only last week that a representative of the fishing community in Trinidad, Gary Aboud, was able to get close enough to the heavily listing Venezuelan oil tanker to show first hand how serious the risk is, especially with the Caribbean in a particularly active 2020 hurricane season that is only due to end by November 30.
Combined with drone footage to show the angle of tilting, his two and a half minute video (link below) shows the risk that poor weather would have on the tanker, and what he highlights as a lack of urgency by the Trinidad and Tobago Government or the international community to act.
With the oil spill in Mauritius in August, it was the UN shipping regulator, the International Maritime Organization, who sent representatives to co-ordinate the Wakashio oil spill efforts for the United Nations but they were widely seen to have exacerbated the oil spill crisis. Ironically, the news from the Caribbean comes as the IMO is debating oil and emission targets for ships in London this week, amid criticism that environmental standards are being watered down by this UN agency.
Urgent calls for action
Gary Aboud, Corporate Secretary of Trinidad and Tobago based environmental group, Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, went to the site of the Nabarima, moored in Venezuelan waters, to highlight the risk posed to the over 50,000 fishermen of Trinidad and Tobago that rely on the sea, the potential long term ecological harm to species in this coral reef and biodiversity rich region, as well as the broader regional risk to the Caribbean given the direction of the currents and wind at this time of year.
Reports from the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian had been calling for action since early September.
According to a spokesperson for Trinidad and Tobago’s Energy Minister, Franklin Khan, who spoke to the Guardian on September 4, “The [Trinidad and Tobago] Energy Ministry through the Venezuelan Embassy has offered any assistance, technical or logistical to the Government of Venezuela that it may require. Also, the Minister of Energy is in contact with his Venezuelan counterpart for further updates as they become available.”
An emotional video by Gary Aboud first posted on September 7, six weeks ago, had highlighted the growing risk of the tilting oil tanker, combined with the ongoing hurricane season – the second most active on record.
The Nabarima has a capacity of 1.4 million barrels, and was abandoned without a crew by the Venezuelan state and a joint venture with Italian energy giant, ENI, following sanctions from the United States in late 2019.
Flooding since August
There had been images and warnings about water coming on board when Venezuelan oil worker Eudis Girot first posted these on August 30. Eudis Girot is a tugboat captain for the Maritime Division of Venezuela’s State Oil Company, PDVSA, and Executive Director of Venezuela’s FUTPV Oil Workers Union. He has actively championed issues of poor worker conditions and environmental risk in Venezuela in the past.
These posts were then picked up by the New York Times
Six weeks later, Gary Aboud, whose footage this weekend was taken next to the tanker, showed that the angle of listing had increased to what he estimated was 25 degrees.
Threat to the wider Caribbean
With the prevailing currents and wind direction, an oil spill of this magnitude would threaten the entire Southern Caribbean for years to come.
This includes the major tourism hotspots such as Grenada, Barbados, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Caribbean Coral Network at risk
The chain of islands and corals are part of a unique genetic coral reef system extending from Venezuela all the way along the Caribbean to the coast of Florida.
The coral reefs that originate from Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago are foundational to the health of coral ecosystems across the entire Caribbean. Each island has a genetically unique set of corals that initially evolved from Trinidadian corals, and the ocean microbiome (the bacteria that grow around corals) are critical to give corals their color and life. Other coral systems in the Caribbean had been dependent on receiving nutrients and healthy bacteria from these source corals over thousands of years.
It is these bacteria that could be harmed by a major oil spill, leading to long term genetic damage to the already climate-stressed corals.
Oil spills and their harmful chemicals (like PAHs) cause long term genetic impact on coastal ecosystems, impacting gender balance of species and other parts of the genetic code that humans are only just understanding. This can lead to long term collapse of once healthy marine ecosystems, as has been seen elsewhere in the world.
Fourth oil spill risk from Venezuela in past 3 months
If the oil tanker Nabarima were to disintegrate, this would be the fourth major oil spill from Venezuela in the past 3 months alone, and by far the worst. This is in addition to a major oil spill off the coast of Brazil in September last year from a ship that had refueled in Venezuela.
Venezuela has already been criticized for two major oil leaks in National Parks in the past two months alone, as well as ongoing air emission pollution. This comes amid growing concerns surrounding particular refineries in Venezuela run by state oil company, PDVSA.
The notorious El Palito refinery next to the biodiversity hotspot and Ramsar internationally protected Morrocoy National Park has been of particular concern to environmentalists. There are now reports that it suffered a fire on October 9 that has temporarily put it out of commission. Local engineers and activists have been concerned that the aging and under maintained network of pipelines around the refinery could also be falling into disrepair, and causing several leaks too. These leaks can easily be identified by satellite (especially Synthetic Aperture Radar which Finish company Iceye was able to provide to Mauritius and had proven very effective in the oil spill response).
A pipeline leak at the Cadron refinery to the West of the country led to an unknown amount of oil being released into the ocean last month too.
A disputed election
Venezuela has seen deteriorating human rights, social, economic and environmental conditions since disputed Presidential elections in on 20 May 2018. There was widespread allegations of voter fraud. The National Assembly declared Nicolás Maduro an “usurper” of the presidency on the day of his second inauguration on 10 January 2019. Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice declared the National Assembly to be “unconstitutional.” Presidential challenger, Juan Guaidó declared that he was the acting president and took the presidential oath on 23 January 2019.
Juan Guaidó was recognized as Venezuela’s acting President by more than 60 countries (including the United States), while Nicolas Maduro was recognized by 20 countries. The Organization of American States (OAS) declared Nicolás Maduro’s presidency illegitimate and urged new elections, but the United Nations recognized the Maduro government as the legal representative of Venezuela. However in a later, scathing report released on 16 September 2020, the UN accused Maduro of Crimes against Humanity.
Poorly written UN IMO Laws increase risk for poorer countries
The energy minister of Trinidad and Tobago highlighted the complexities with addressing oil spills across international boundaries. Speaking to the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian on September 4, Khan said, “The nation needs to be reminded that Venezuela is a sovereign state and T&T cannot unilaterally enter Venezuelan territory to conduct any reconnaissance or other works without being invited to so do. There exists a bilateral agreement between Venezuela and Trinidad for an oil spill contingency plan in the event a genuine risk exists or an active spill occurs. This is the agreement that will govern the action of the Government.”
This highlights the risk posed by poorly written laws at the IMO. Several of these laws have increased the risk posed by oil spills to third party countries through which global shipping has demanded ‘innocent passage’ through. Although the case in Venezuela involves relations between Trinidad and Venezuela, there are several third party ships from Iran passing to Venezuela that pose a high risk to both states.
Both Mauritius and Sri Lanka suffered this summer due to obscure legal loopholes pushed by the maritime insurance and oil industry, raising questions about whether international legislation being pushed by the UN’s International Maritime Organization to countries around the world is designed to protect the environment and poorer coastal communities, or designed to protect the multi billion dollar shipping, oil and maritime insurance industries. The closer one looks, the less clear the answers are.
Lessons from Mauritius oil spill
The latest sinking oil tanker comes on the back of a series of major shipping and oil disasters over the summer. One of the most high profile spills had been that of the Wakashio bulk carrier on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.
Between 200,000 and 310,000 gallons of oil were spilled into the pristine coral lagoons of the island nation (and the final numbers have not been disclosed by the Japanese shipowner almost two months on from the oil spill).
Local tourism and fishing communities have been devastated by the impact of the oil spill. Several important nature reserves such as the internationally protected Ramsar Mangrove sites of Pointe d’Esny and Blue Bay Marine Park have had heavy oil drench the coastline, that will likely to lead to decades of long term environmental risks. A small island containing many of Mauritius’ 322 endangered species was also directly hit by the oil spill, pushing several to the brink of extinction.
Leaders call for global shipping reform
Caribbean resident, Sir Richard Branson, has been calling for global shipping reform since the oil spill in Mauritius. Speaking to Forbes in August, he said, “Global shipping should step up to its responsibilities and offer support to the people of Mauritius to clean the pollution and ensure the long term monitoring and rehabilitation of the entire site.”
Ocean scientist and explorer, Dr Sylvia Earle, has called for the Japanese owners of the sunken wreck off of Mauritius that caused the oil spill, to be lifted off the seabed and returned to a shipyard to be safely dismantled.
Even the Pope and the UN Secretary General have had to intervene in global shipping several times this summer as the industry have failed to guarantee the safety of 400,000 seafarers stuck on large oil tankers, bulk carrier, container ships and cruise liners around the world.
IMO talks this week
The risks to Trinidad and Venezuela of the sinking Nabarima oil tanker follows protests outside the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) on Monday. Campaigners from environmental NGO, Ocean Rebellion, say that the 1 billion tons of carbon from heavy shipping oil is causing a climate emergency and demands that the G20 group of most powerful nations intervene to radically shake up safety and environmental standards in the industry.
The UN agency, has been criticized for undermining Paris Agreement, with proposals that will vastly increase carbon emissions for the world’s 6th largest emitter (global shipping), well beyond the world’s carbon budget that is needed to keep the planet’s climate stable.
It is also the week that the new Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihde Suga, has been criticized for advocating to dump radioactive Fukushima water into the ocean.
With nine major oil spills this year alone, and Trinidad and Tobago now in the eye of the storm of just the latest crisis caused by global shipping, will this industry ever be reformed?
Or will the silent complicity of the major maritime insurance companies, shipping companies, and other sustainable maritime states who are proudly boast of their sustainability credentials, also be a stain on the industry.
2020 was supposed to be the biggest year for the environment. Someone forgot to tell the global shipping industry.