There’s nothing quite like the feeling of uncertainty and dread right in the moments before a disaster of gargantuan proportions unfolds in front of our eyes. We might be living in that moment now if immediate measures aren’t taken to prevent what is soon to be an oil spill so horrifically devastating that it would be eight times bigger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which spewed 10.8 million US gallons of crude oil into the waters off the coast of Alaska in 1989. Right now, there is a floating storage and offloading facility floating in the Gulf of Paria off the coast of Venezuela, and it could sink at any moment, sending a catastrophic quantity of oil–80 million gallons–into the crystalline waters of the Caribbean Sea, ranking it as one of the top ten worst oil spills in world history.
The Venezuelan vessel, called the Nabarima, is reportedly currently under repair in the Gulf of Paria, where it’s been floating, unused, since January of last year. The vessel is Venezuelan-flagged, but it’s actually operated as part of a joint venture between Venezuelan state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and the Italian oil giant Eni, which together form the company Petrosucre.
The United States embassy in Trinidad and Tobago has sounded alarm bells about the impending environmental disaster, calling for “immediate actions” in order to avoid a heartbreaking catastrophe, the dimensions of which we haven’t seen since 1991, when the ABT Summer spilled 80 million gallons into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Angola.
Fears of the Nabarima’s sinking were raised when a photo was circulated last week which revealed that the Venezuelan FSO vessel is floating at an incline, “raising fears that it could spill its load into the gulf devastating the regional fishing industry and delicate ecosystems,” Newsweek reported on Sunday. The whistleblowing photo was reportedly taken on October 13, and was published on Friday the 16th by Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS), an environmental NGO stationed in Trinidad and Tobago.
The Nabarima is just one of many Petrosucre operations that have been sitting idle since January, 2019, when a fresh round of sanctions from the Trump administration prompted the company to halt all of its oil extraction operations. This left the Nabarima adrift with 1.3 million barrels of crude oil, about 80 million gallons, which are now poised to spill into the Caribbean Sea.
If this unbridled disaster comes to pass, it won’t be the first Venezuelan oil spill this year. In fact, it won’t even be the second. “In July, a state-owned refinery began to spill oil into the Morrocoy National Park, one of the country’s most biodiverse areas,” the New York Times reported in September. And then, later that same month, the Washington Post reported that another oil slick had been found snaking across the Caribbean.
“Venezuela’s once powerful oil industry is literally falling apart, with years of mismanagement, corruption, falling prices and a U.S. embargo imposed last year bringing aging infrastructure to the brink of collapse,” the Washington Post reported on September 24. “As the government scrambles to repair and restart its fuel-processing capacity, analysts are warning that ruptured pipelines, rusting tankers and rickety refineries are contributing to a mounting ecological disaster in this failing socialist state.”
Little did they know. Any amount of oil leaking into the sea, destroying biodiversity and compromising the livelihoods and health of Venezuelans who are already suffering from extreme poverty and societal collapse, is a tragedy. But the potential apocalyptic proportions of what may be one of the top ten biggest oil spills in history beginning before our eyes right off the battered Venezuelan coast is a tragedy on a much grander scale.
As Nicolas Maduro’s failing government and crumbling infrastructure threaten to unleash hell on the Caribbean, it becomes all of our problem. The degradation of the oceans, and of the Venezuelan people themselves, who are already suffering a human rights crisis, is the responsibility of the international community. And we had better act fast, and hope that these reports end up sounding alarmist, and not prescient.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com