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The FSO Nabarima has been photographed in recent days off the coast of Venezuela tilting at an angle that has concerned environmental advocates in Trinidad and Tobago. The vessel is currently holding 1.3 million barrels of oil, according to reports. (Photo: @ConflictsW/Twitter)

Amid US Sanctions, Venezuelan Oil Tanker at Risk of Spilling 1.3 Million Barrels and Devastating Caribbean Ecosystems

"The Caribbean Sea would never be the same" should the oil spill, climate scientist Eric Holthaus tweeted.

Julia Conley

The companies that own a Venezuelan oil vessel that's been positioned off the country's coast for nearly two years called on the U.S. to give a "green light" to unload 1.3 million barrels of oil after local environmental advocates on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago expressed alarm over the recent appearance of the boat, which is tilting to one side and looks to be on the verge of sinking.

Recent pictures and footage show the FSO Nabarima, which has been in the Gulf of Paria since January 2019, tilting at about a 25º angle. The boat flies the Venezuelan flag and is operated by the Venezuelan state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and Eni, the Italian oil giant.

The U.S. embassy in Trinidad and Tobago said Friday that the joint venture "has a responsibility to take action to avoid an environmental disaster in Venezuelan waters." But Eni on Friday said that because the U.S. sanctioned PDVSA in 2019 along with President Nicolas Maduro, it must wait for approval from the U.S. to unload its oil "in order to prevent any sanctions risk."

"If this thing flips we will all pay the consequences for decades to come."
—Gary Aboud, Fishermen and Friends of the Sea

The embassy said in a statement that "the United States' Venezuela sanctions program is not designed to target activities addressing safety, environmental, or humanitarian concerns," suggesting local authorities are free to unload the oil. 

The Nabarima has the capacity to carry 1.4 million barrels of oil and is currently holding 1.3 million barrels—equivalent to more than 54 million gallons of crude oil. 

A spill from the vessel in the Gulf of Paria would dump five times the amount of oil that was spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989 off the Alaskan coast, noted climate scientist Eric Holthaus.

An unnamed source told Reuters that the vessel is tilted only because its crew has been repairing its valves, but Gary Aboud of the Trinidadian environmental group Fishermen and Friends of the Sea told the outlet that the recent images of the Nabarima "should be [a] red alert."

"If this thing flips we will all pay the consequences for decades to come," Aboud said.

Global Voices reported Sunday that an oil spill in the Gulf of Paria could turn it into a "dead, contaminated sea," threatening the mangrove forests, lagoons, estuaries, beaches, and ecosystems there.  

The gulf serves as a habitat and migratory route for bird species as well as whales, dolphins, turtles, and other fauna. It is also where more than 50% of all fishing activity in Trinidad and Tobago takes places, and the potentially impending spill would devastate the local fishing industry. 

"If it goes down we are all f-a-c-k-e-d," Aboud told Tampa, Florida-based radio station WMNF. "There's no nice way to say what will happen to us. Because 1.3 million barrels in an enclosed shallow, basin of water can only spell doom and gloom."

The tilting ship offers "one more good reason to leave oil behind," tweeted co-founder Bill McKibben.

"It's an accident that's happening in slow motion," Aboud told WMNF. "It's very clear that the vessel is in trouble. There's no doubt."

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