Oil Tanker “FSO Safer” - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:47 pm on 7th February 2022.

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Photo of Lord Walney Lord Walney Non-affiliated 2:47 pm, 7th February 2022

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with international partners about the condition of the oil tanker FSO Safer moored in the Red Sea north of the Yemeni city of Al Hudaydah, and the risks it poses to the environment.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, we continue to work closely with our international partners, including through the UN and in the region, to tackle the environmental threat posed by the FSO “Safer” to the Red Sea region. We have provided technical support and expertise to the UN, and we play a facilitating role between the UN, the private sector and regional actors to drive progress on mitigating the threat. We are also working with partners on contingency planning in the event of a spill.

Photo of Lord Walney Lord Walney Non-affiliated

I thank the Minister for that Answer. We have been talking about the principle that the polluter must pay. Does he agree with the assessment from environmentalists that, should this ship degrade further, we could be looking at a disaster greater even than “Exxon Valdez”? Will the Government put pressure on the backers of the Islamist Houthi regime, who are pulling the strings and preventing this ship being given the treatment it so urgently needs?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The noble Lord is absolutely right. This would be a really colossal disaster—probably four times worse than the “Exxon Valdez” spill. It would cause irreparable damage and require clean-up costing many billions. He is also right that we urgently need the Houthis to allow the UN to make a technical inspection of the vessel. Unless and until they agree to that, the international community cannot make any meaningful progress. Houthi co-operation is therefore absolutely critical if we want to make that progress.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator in the region warns that the risk of imminent catastrophe is very real. As the Minister will know, clearly such a spill would disrupt trade through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, with global effects. Above all, as he has noted, it would be disastrous in the region, closing Yemeni ports, disrupting the food aid on which half the population of Yemen depends, and affecting all sides, including the Houthis. What strategies are being taken forward to try to deliver a safe resolution to this problem?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, in addition to the answer I gave to the previous question, that really is absolutely central. Our hands are tied until there is proper, meaningful co-operation. The UK has put this on the international agenda. UK-funded research identified the threat posed by the tanker and has been used by international partners, including the UN, to underpin their assessments. We have provided £2.5 million towards UN efforts. We are supporting the UN “Safer” working groups by providing a technical adviser to help them develop their mitigation and contingency plans, and much more besides. Fundamentally, we need to stop this happening, because the effects will take many years and costs vast sums of money to recover.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I return to the fundamental question. The United Kingdom is a penholder on the UN Security Council. This ship has been there for five years and is being used as a weapon in itself. We have a responsibility at the Security Council to support the peace process, so can the Minister tell us exactly where we are now? What is the United Kingdom doing to ensure that we end this terrible humanitarian crisis in Yemen and move towards a peace process that works?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, there are numerous moving parts. It is worth pointing out that we remain one of the biggest donors to Yemen, contributing more than £1 billion since the conflict began. We remain very concerned by the situation there and continue to support the UN-led efforts to end the conflict. We believe that a negotiated political settlement is the only way to bring long-term stability to Yemen. To deal with this particular part of the conflict—this potential crisis—the UK is working closely with the UN donor group consisting of the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, France and Germany to support UN efforts to resolve the risk posed by the “Safer”.

Photo of Lord Swinfen Lord Swinfen Conservative

My Lords, are any plans in place to offload the cargo to mitigate any potential damage?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

If I heard the question correctly, plans have been put together with UK support to do precisely that—to try to shift the oil from this tanker to another—but that is not possible without co-operation across the board. I refer the noble Lord to my first Answer.

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee, Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee

My Lords, to follow on from the noble Lord, Lord Walney, the answer to this possibly lies through those who control the Houthis. We all know that they are dependent to a large degree on Iran. We have diplomatic relations with Tehran; we sometimes forget that. Can the Minister say what representations our ambassador in Tehran has made to the Government there to solve this crisis?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, the UK is using every avenue we can. The noble Lord mentions one; there are others. The UK is now playing an important role in supporting a commercial initiative to resolve the issue. We supported local Yemeni partners to develop a feasible initiative, which they have been negotiating directly with the Houthis in a way that others would struggle to do. Along with the Dutch Government, the UK has been foremost in rallying the international community behind that commercial initiative, including securing support from Saudi Arabia and the Government of Yemen.

Photo of Viscount Waverley Viscount Waverley Crossbench

My Lords, following on from the two previous questions, it is also worth noting that we must use every endeavour to ensure that no rockets or missiles land in Riyadh or any city in the Emirates. Is the Minister minded to say a word about that situation?

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to many of the disastrous impacts that will happen if this oil leaks, spills or causes an explosion. I am sure the Minister is aware that the Red Sea is a crucial coral reef area. Indeed, with the warming climate and seas, it is a real area of refuge where, it is hoped, coral reefs could survive even if they die out in other areas. Is the Minister confident that enough is being done to contain the damage? It does not necessarily require Houthi agreement for containment mechanisms to be put in place in the region. More than that, we have heard lots of discussion about “polluter pays”. What contribution are oil companies making to the mitigation effort?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I will give the noble Baroness an example. There was a false alarm, if she remembers, a little over month ago, on 27 December, of a spill from the pipeline connected to “Safer”. The reaction to that—thankfully, false—alarm demonstrated how quickly the international regional community could respond if that were to occur. Due to our close co-ordination with, and support for, our allies, we were quickly able to confirm that there was no leak. I stress that, no matter how good the contingency plan, the disaster would be very real irrespective. Therefore, the priority has to be to try to stop it from happening.