Aging Oil Storage Vessels Pose Safety and Environmental Risks Worldwide


The decades-old oil storage vessel that recently exploded off the coast of Nigeria – killing some of its crew and spilling its contents into the Atlantic Ocean – is one of many vessels from a similar era scattered around worldwide.

This ship, still partially floating above the surface, was first launched 46 years ago when US President Gerald Ford was still in office and was reconfigured for storage 25 years ago. There are more than 30 others still in operation that were originally built before 1977, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Vessels like Trinity Spirit typically start out as tankers before reaching the end of their useful life as carriers – typically a lifespan of no more than 20 years. To extend their value as assets, they are converted into ships that float – usually in one place – producing or simply storing crude for other ships to pick up. They are known as FPSOs or FSOs and can last for years. FPSO is an acronym for “Floating Production Storage and Offloading”, while FSO stands for “Floating Storage and Offloading”.

“It’s a challenge for FPSOs at the end of their lifespan, especially when there hasn’t been enough maintenance and upgrading needed, as corrosion develops and the condition of the Equipment is getting worse, and system integrity is a headache,” said Zhenying Wu, a senior analyst for Rystad Energy.

Difficult conditions

Ships must withstand harsh environmental conditions and extreme weather conditions, such as huge storms, rogue waves and large temperature swings. While most are rigorously maintained, their need for maintenance increases with age.

The American Bureau of Shipping, which classifies ships based on their operational safety, raised last year the need to address safety issues such as structural integrity and maintenance challenges around the world’s fleet of FPSOs, with more than 50 of them reaching the end of their life in the next five years. More than half are over 30 and a quarter over 40.

The cause of the Trinity Spirit crash that killed at least two crew members has yet to be determined, along with the amount of crude oil spilled, according to the National Emergency Response and Response Agency. oil spill. Her conversion 25 years ago means she was at the end of a typical storage vessel life after her reconfiguration.

Ikemefuna Okafor, managing director of Shebah Exploration and Production Co., which had the vessel on lease, did not respond to multiple calls seeking comment.

A conversion overhaul adds about 20 years to a vessel’s lifespan, according to Venediktos Roussos of Polygreen, a company that provides emergency oil spill response. Some are used beyond that period and can pose a threat to the environment, especially if neglected, he said.

“There are still a few FSOs and FPSOs around the world that are no longer in service and have been left without maintenance or observation.

Some of these vessels are already causing concern.

The Safer, moored off Yemen, was built the same year as the Trinity Spirit. It contains over a million barrels of crude. The payload is at risk of leaking from its “fragile” hull or if hit by a missile fired into the conflict zone, according to Greenpeace.

The environmental group published a 40-page report in December which describes the potentially “catastrophic” environmental, health and economic liability posed by the ship, which has deteriorated.

Brazil accounts for about half of the active ships that were originally built over 40 years ago, but these carriers have had no problems on the scale of the Trinity Spirit.

State oil company Petrobras is operating within company standards and regulatory guidelines, a spokesperson said. Public plans include replacing rigs in some fields with new FPSOs. He considers their age to be from when they were converted, not when they were first built.

Newer ships

In 2019, the company reported cracks in an FPSO, the Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, which led to an oil leak. The vessel was originally built in 1986 and converted in 2006. She was decommissioned and the incident was thoroughly investigated, leading to improved management of all other units to avoid any recurrence, the spokesman said. Petrobras’ rig maintenance and integrity plans track all operational phases, he said.

Newer ships may also have issues. Last year, Venezuela’s state oil company also transferred crude from FSO Nabarima, launched in 2005, after union leaders flagged the risk of a spill.

Conversion usually involves assessments, upgrades and integration, which also makes the time since the last operation very important, “considering that many accidents are caused by aging equipment and the degradation of the ‘integrity of the system’, according to Wu of Rystad. “Continuous monitoring, maintenance and repair are very important.”

–With help from Mariana Durao, William Clowes, Anthony Osae-Brown and Elaine He.

About the photo: An FPSO tanker at work is shown.

Copyright 2022 Bloomberg.


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