A damaged Venezuelan vessel filled with 1.3 million barrels of oil is tilting to one side in the middle of the Caribbean. The vessel, Nabarima, was anchored permanently between Venezuela and Trinidad. However, due to COVID-19 and the U.S. government’s sanctions on Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), (the state-owned oil company that produced the oil) Nabarima has become inactive. 

The Nabarima holds five times more oil than what was spilled during the 1989 Exxon-Valdez disaster in Alaska. Even the slightest spill could result in a decades long environmental disaster in the vast Caribbean seas. The Venezuelan government has denied claims of the magnitude of the risk the vessel holds. A report from the island of Trinidad and Tobago says the vessel ‘does not pose a significant risk of spilling and causing an environmental catastrophe.’ However, an environmental watchdog group based in Trinidad called Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) has expressed concerns over the removal of the oil as it could result in severe spills. 

According to recent reports, the Venezuelan government has begun the process of transferring crude oil back to Venezuela.

The Nabarima was built by a U.S. company and locked in place by eight large anchors. Eduardo Klein, an environmental scientist, has expressed concerns over the Venezuelan government’s ability to contain a spill. Earlier this summer, his photographs show evidence of oil spills—one from a coastal refinery and one from an underwater pipe—that were never contained. According to Klein, even if there is a small spill, a government’s first attempt should be to contain it. However, the Venezuelan government seems the least bit prepared for it. 

According to Jaime Bolaños-Jiménez, a marine ecologist at the Venezuelan Ecological Society for Marine Life, the mangrove forests will be largely damaged. “spill could be catastrophic because mangrove forests are amongst the most productive ecosystems [on] the planet.”

Marine life, like sea turtles, sea birds, sharks, and rays, along with commercially important shrimp, fish, and mollusks would also be affected by potential spills. 

Oceana marine scientist Sarag Glitz has said “depending on the size of a spill, the effects may linger for decades, long after clean-up efforts have ended.”

So what is happening to the vessel now? In an interview, Trinidad and Tobago’s energy minister, Franklin Khan informed that a vessel called Icaro was offloading oil from the Nabarima. Icaro, however, is a much smaller vessel with a capacity of 300,000. The transfer process of the crude oil will require several trips until the Nabarima is entirely empty. 

The FFOS has been concerned about Nabarima since the sanctions were imposed. However, the urgency of the matter intensified when they received pictures of the Nabarima significantly tilting to one side. This is when Gary Aboud, FFOS’s corporate secretary of government, went to see the vessel in person confirming that there was an estimated 25 percent tilt.

Venezuelan petroleum workers union also tweeted that the vessel had extensive problems with its machinery, which were “permanent.”

The Nabarima is currently being guarded by Venezuelan authorities. The risk of environmental disaster has attracted international attention. As a result of which Venezuelan authorities have undertaken the task of transporting crude oil back to Venezuela. This too, however, poses a threat to the environment. The process of transferring the oil is an extensive one, therefore, it is difficult to ascertain the outcome yet. In the meantime, we can hope that the oil is transferred smoothly and without any environmental catastrophes.


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  • Ayesha Mirza

    Ayesha is studying Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. She is passionate about amplifying the voices of the marginalized and/or oppressed and initiating unconventional but important conversations.