A potential environmental catastrophe is anchored off the coast of Venezuela, and only an international salvage operation will remove the chance of it.
The FSO Nabarima is a Venezuelan-flagged ship co-owned by the Venezuelan state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and the Italian oil company Eni SpA. It is a floating crude oil storage and offloading vessel without motors that is permanently moored by eight large anchors at the Corocoro oil field in the Gulf of Paria, located between Venezuela and the island of Trinidad.
After production at Corocoro ceased in 2019 following United States sanctions on PDVSA, the Nabarima was abandoned, and was reported in 2020 to be at risk of spilling her cargo of 1.3 million barrels of crude oil. Much of the ship was in disrepair, many of her electrical systems were non-functioning, and she was listing to starboard. The political condition of the Nabarima’s salvage is equally unstable.
Venezuela has denied that the ship poses any danger. Last September, PDVSA’s offshore executive director, Pedro Figuera, tweeted that the Nabarima “complied with environmental and operational standards,” and that any reports that the ship was unsafe were “lies” posted on social networks by “pseudo-experts.”
The U.S. sanctions on Venezuela imposed in January 2020 made it illegal for companies that operate in the U.S. to conduct business with the country’s state-owned oil company. In October, Sarah Gibbens of National Geographic magazine reported that a U.S. State Department spokesperson said that Eni “would not be penalized for conducting repairs to the Nabarima, but declined to confirm that the Italian company had a green light to remove the oil and return it to Venezuelan soil.”
Eduardo Klein is an environmental scientist at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas, who studies oil spills in the region. He says the vessel has not shown any signs of leaking or spilling its oil.
However, Klein has said that based on models he ran before the storage vessel was put in place 15 years ago, a spill could damage the entire Gulf of Paria from the Venezuelan coast to the west coast of Trinidad and Tobago, and even spread through the strait between the two countries, into the Caribbean Sea to the north.
As Gibbens wrote in National Geographic last October, “What worries Klein most, he says, is the Venezuelan government’s ability to contain a spill. Twice earlier this summer, his images showed evidence of oil spills — one from a coastal refinery and one from an underwater pipe — that were never contained.
“ ‘When you spill oil, one of the first things you see is effort to contain it,’ he says of the barriers and other containment measures visible via satellite. ‘None of this was evident in any of the images I saw. I do not think they are even prepared for even a minor spill.’ ”
The western coast of Trinidad, on the shore of the Gulf of Paria, is lined with mangrove forest, one of the most biologically productive ecosystems on the planet. In addition to providing breeding grounds for the fish and shellfish on which the island’s fishing industry depends, they are migratory and year-round habitat for many species of birds.
The Caroni Bird Sanctuary, on the Caroni River estuary and mangrove swamps of it, is one of the Caribbean’s most important breeding grounds. The park is just south of the capital of Port-of-Spain, and the island’s population center.
“The Gulf of Paria is an enclosed body of water,” explains Gary Abboud, a board member of Fisherman and Friends of the Seas (FFOS), a Trinidad-based, non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the marine environments around the island. “It moves in a clockwise motion. If the oil spilled inside the Gulf, it would move in a circular manner, and because it’s crude oil, a lot of it would sink to the bottom, where it’s difficult to remove.”
Both Eni and PDVSA have said that the Nabarima is safe and stable. For now. As of late last year, Eni was developing a plan for offloading the oil and salvaging the storage tanker.
One hurdle was passed last October,
“Eni’s plan to safely offload the Nabarima received on Thursday, October 29, a green light from the U.S. authorities, confirming that the current sanctions policy does not prevent the companyfrom offloading the cargo and repairing the vessel,” Eni said in a statement to the Reuters new agency. At the same time, Reuters reported, PDVSA was preparing its own plan to offload some crude aboard the Nabarima to its Icaro tanker. The Icaro, however, is a smaller vessel, and the plan would require multiple trips to completely offload the Nabarima’s oil.
Which plan will be implemented, what methods will be used, and—above all—how successful the operation will be at preventing incidental spill remain to be seen.
“The Gulf of Paria is extremely bio-diverse, with multiple ecosystems that animals migrate to or live in,” says FFOS’s Gary Abboud. “It’s a world treasure and vital to the economy of our country.”