Trinidad says idle Venezuela oil vessel not a threat. Environmentalists are not convinced

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Trinidadian environmental group Fishermen and Friends of the Sea said it photographed a dangerously listing Venezuelan-flagged vessel, the Nabarima, off its eastern coast. - Courtesy Fishermen and Friends o/TNS/TNS

The government of Trinidad and Tobago said Thursday that a floating oil-storage vessel with nearly 55 million gallons of Venezuelan crude oil off its coast is not taking on water and shows no sign of capsizing and creating an environmental disaster off the coast of South America.

Trinidad Energy Minister Franklin Khan also confirmed reports that Venezuela had started to transfer the crude oil onboard the FSO Nabarima to a tanker via a barge. Khan said while the process of emptying the 1.3 million barrels of oil from the Nabarima is safe, they are concerned about the inordinate amount of time — approximately 35 days — it will take and plan to ask Venezuela to use a larger ship.

“There was absolutely no tilt of the vessel that was recognized and the vessel was totally horizontal,” Khan said during a news conference about the findings of a team of Trinidadian experts who inspected the Nabarima. “All in all, the maintenance of the vessel met the satisfaction of the team.”

The vessel, which is a storage and offloading unit, has raised alarm among environmentalists and the U.S. embassy in Trinidad after published photos showed the ship tilting in the Gulf of Paria between Venezuela and Trinidad. The vessel, environmental group Fishermen and Friends of the Sea said, risks spilling millions of gallons of oil out into the sea and creating a large scale environmental disaster.

The U.S. embassy in Port-of-Spain joined the chorus of those demanding that Trinidad officials step up pressure on Venezuela to get access to the ship. U.S. officials also said that sanctions placed by the Trump administration against Venezuela and leader Nicolas Maduro did not preclude the problem from being addressed.

On Thursday, Fishermen and Friends of the Sea said that while they thank Trinidadian officials for finally dispatching a team out to the ship, they are calling on the government to “make public videographic evidence of the vessel’s stability because misleading and doctored pictures have in the past spread propaganda.”

“We are cautiously optimistic that the worst has passed but expect (Khan) will share the credentials of the ‘experts,’” the group said.

The team of Trinidadian experts flew by helicopter on Tuesday to visit the Nabarima, 17 miles west of the international border between Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela. Khan said they spent 31/2 hours and inspected various rooms, including the engine and boiler rooms, before concluding that the vessel is “upright and stable, with no visible tilt, and there is no imminent risk of tilting or sinking at this time.”

Khan acknowledged that in September the ship’s engine room had flooded but said the team saw no visible sign of water or that there was mixing of oil and water. “The oil did not leak from the containment tanks,” he said. “What this implies is … the double hulls are intact and (the ship) poses minimum risk of oil spills at this time.”

Khan said he and the government of Trinidad and Tobago are “very pleased” with the report of the technical team.

The Nabarima is operated by the Petrosucre company, a joint venture between the Venezuelan state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, PDVSA, and the Italian oil giant ENI.

The ship is filled with crude oil from an oil field in Venezuela, which is traditionally then transferred to a tanker for export.

“That has been going on for over 10 years without any fuss, without any rancor, without any clamor, without any media coverage,” Khan said.

When the Trump administration slapped sanctions on PDVSA in January 2019, Petrosucre was forced to stop its oil extraction and the ship was left off the eastern coast of Venezuela with millions of barrels of crude oil.

Addressing criticism over how long it took Trinidad to send inspectors out to the ship, Foreign Affairs Minister Amery Browne said Thursday that the Nabarima and its cargo were the subject of “significant diplomatic activity” including multiple diplomatic cables, meetings and phone calls between his government and Venezuelan authorities, as well as the U.S. embassy in Port-of-Spain and various Caribbean officials.

Responding to demands on social media that Trinidad seize the vessel, Browne said that “would be a violation of international law and would have plunged Trinidad and Tobago into an intractable situation.” He also called another demand that Trinidad “should just forget about sanctions and go and empty the vessel” of the 1.3 million barrels of oil sitting in Venezuelan waters as “an absurd proposition.”

“Besides Facebook photographs videos, we now have concrete evidence, and observations by our own people, our own eyes and our own experts,” he added. “This government does care about the environment and we continue to demonstrate that. We share the concerns of the people of Trinidad and Tobago and we continue to take decisive, responsible and focused efforts to ensure that every step we take is based on evidence and fact.”


©2020 Miami Herald

The logo of Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA atop a gas station in Caracas, on November 14, 2017. - Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS
Courtesy Fishermen and Friends o/TNS/TNS