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Could the Venezuelan oil tanker in the Caribbean Sea still pose an environmental threat?

Gary Aboud, corporate secretary of Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS), visits the FSO Nabarima on October 16, 2020. Screenshot taken from FFOS video, posted on YouTube by guns21111.

This article was originally published on Cari-Bois News. An edited version is republished here with permission.

In October 2020, the Trinidad and Tobago-based non-profit Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) drew public attention to the fact that a Venezuela-flagged oil tanker, estimated to contain as much as 1.3 million barrels of crude oil, appeared to be leaning to one side off a remote stretch of the country’s coast in the Gulf of Paria in the Caribbean Sea, potentially posing a threat to both ecosystems and livelihoods.

By October 20, the Trinidad and Tobago government had sent a three-person team from its Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries (MEEI) to assess the status of the FSO Nabarima, which concluded that the risk of an oil spill was minimal, but that the transfer of the crude on board should be hastened. The experts also recommended a subsequent assessment, which, at a press conference held after their report was released, line minister Franklin Khan said would “make sure everything remains stable so that there will be a continuity of monitoring”.

Nearly five months later, Trinidad and Tobago officials have not yet reinspected the tanker, despite their own recommendation that a follow-up should have been done within a month of their October 20 visit, prompting FFOS to take legal action. On March 10, the environmental whistleblower group issued a press release asking:

Why is it taking our Government so long to meaningfully communicate with a neighbouring country? Why has there been this silence and secrecy in a matter of such grave public and environmental concern?

When Cari-Bois News contacted the MEEI's senior communications officer Choy Felix, he said that the ministry was still waiting on the necessary approvals to be granted from Venezuelan authorities—permissions that were being pursued through diplomatic channels in the Ministry of Foreign and CARICOM [Caribbean Community] Affairs.

According to FFOS, however, the “slow and disjointed” response of both governments in this matter is “representative of the failure” of the Bilateral Oil Spill Contingency Plan (1989), an agreement that outlines the parameters of a joint response to oil spills in the Gulf of Paria, and supposedly stipulates conditions under which either party may intervene across maritime borders according to the level of risk.

Via a Freedom of Information (FOI) application, FFOS requested a copy of this plan in order to determine whether the government of Trinidad and Tobago had truly explored all available avenues in seeking the interests of its people. However, according to the press release, its FOI request was denied by the Ministry of Foreign and CARICOM Affairs so as to avoid prejudicing Trinidad and Tobago’s relationship with Venezuela. As a result, FFOS will now go to court in an attempt to gain access to a copy of the Bilateral Oil Spill Contingency Plan:

FFOS have taken the decision to instruct our Attorneys to serve onto the Ministry of Foreign Affairs a pre action protocol letter in the hope that the Ministry will release a redacted version of the document. FFOS do not wish to engage in litigation; however, we have a duty to do what is right to protect our natural capital inventory and so we will persist in fighting for the public interest regardless of the sacrifice or danger.

The FFOS statement also accuses the government of misrepresenting to the public the facts surrounding the offloading process, citing a Bloomberg report indicating that the oil removal process had begun in January 2021, as opposed to October 2020 as claimed by the ministry.

The FSO Nabarima has been operating on the Venezuelan side of the Gulf of Paria for the past decade, storing oil procured from the Corocoro Field through a joint venture between Venezuela’s state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela (PVDSA) and the Italian energy multinational Eni.

FFOS first sent a letter to the MEEI on August 24, 2020, raising concerns about the integrity of the vessel and demanding it take action to prevent a potential ecological disaster. Members of FFOS had visited the vessel on October 16, triggering a whirlwind of international coverage as the footage appeared to show the vessel listing, contradicting the Venezuelan government’s stance that the vessel was stable.

Months after news of the FSO Nabarima has faded from the headlines, several questions surrounding its integrity and the offloading process remain unanswered. On March 9, Cari-Bois News reached out to the Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago requesting an update on the status of the offloading process; at the time of publication, there had been no response.

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