Aging Oil Tankers: Lingering Threats Highlighted by Past Tragedy Off Nigerian Coast

Trinity Spirit Incident Spotlights Ongoing Risks of Outdated Vessels, Prompting Calls for Enhanced Maritime Oversight

Estado en el que ha quedado el trinity spirit

An incident off the coast of Nigeria has highlighted the significant risks associated with aging oil tankers, posing threats to both human life and the environment. The Trinity Spirit, a weathered and retrofitted tanker, anchored 24 kilometers off the African country’s coastline, recently experienced a catastrophic explosion while extracting fossil fuels from the ocean floor.

This tragic event resulted in the loss of at least seven lives, the deployment of massive, contaminating black clouds, and the sinking of the vessel, carrying over 40,000 barrels of crude oil. The resulting oil spill further devastated marine ecosystems, underscoring the dangers posed by these outdated vessels.

Investigations into the Trinity Spirit’s history reveal a pattern of recurrent incidents. In February 2022, the vessel was involved in one of the deadliest tragedies on a ship or oil platform in recent years. Judicial documents, ship databases, and crew interviews conducted by the Associated Press unveil that the 46-year-old ship was in a state of near-total deterioration. Critical systems designed to ensure its safe and legal operation, along with its flag registry, had gradually vanished.

The Trinity Spirit falls into a category of old oil tankers tasked with storing and extracting oil, even when on the brink of mechanical failure. At least eight similar vessels have been decommissioned in the past decade due to fires, significant safety hazards, or worker fatalities. Over 30 vessels, older than the Trinity Spirit, continue to store oil worldwide.

Old Oil Tankers’ Risks The Trinity Spirit belonged to a class of vessels engaged in offshore oil extraction and storage at sea, known as Floating Production Storage and Offloading (FPSO) units or Floating Storage and Offloading (FSO) units when used exclusively for storage. Since the 1970s, these units have become increasingly popular for extracting oil in deep waters and areas without pipelines. According to the environmental group SkyTruth, approximately 240 FPSOs are currently operational.

FPSOs differ from most ships in a key aspect: they remain stationary. Once anchored to the ocean floor, they can stay in the same oil field for years or even decades. While they may undergo inspections by national regulators or hired inspectors, they operate outside the normal flow of maritime traffic and the additional legal and safety inspections conducted in ports.

“If a ship is anchored in a country’s national waters and doesn’t engage in commercial traffic, it won’t have the same level of supervision,” stated Meghan Mathieson, Director of Strategy at the Clear Seas Center for Marine Responsibility, based in Canada.

More than half of the current FPSO fleet consists of recycled tankers, according to Rystad Energy, based in Oslo, which maintains data on ships. Senior analyst Edvard Christoffersen noted that without significant repairs, most tankers have hulls designed to last around 25 years. However, some FPSO tankers are used for much longer periods, further escalating risks and hazards.

Operating Without Safety The age of a ship is not the sole indicator of its health. Weather, storms, and wave patterns can stress ship components or accelerate corrosion. Similarly, careful maintenance can extend a ship’s lifespan.

The increasing age of the FPSO fleet is well-known in the industry. The average age of FPSO hulls has risen from 22 to nearly 28 years since 2010, according to Rystad Energy. The U.S. Maritime Transportation Office (one of several entities known as classification societies that certify ship safety) established a working group in 2021 to address challenges posed by older FPSOs, noting that 55 vessels were approaching the end of their expected lifespan.

“If they aren’t well-maintained and closely monitored,” warned maritime security expert Ian Ralby, “they can sink, spill, and, as the Trinity Spirit demonstrated, explode.”

There has been little to no public explanation of what led to the Trinity Spirit’s explosion, although several Nigerian agencies were responsible for overseeing the ship, according to Associated Press. The Trinity Spirit had been in the same oil field for over two decades. Surviving worker Patrick Aganyebi revealed that after the ship arrived in Nigeria, it was never taken ashore for significant upgrades or repairs.

Warning signs emerged years before the vessel caught fire. In 2015, the U.S. Maritime Transportation Office revoked its classification and ceased inspections of the ship. There is no record of the Trinity Spirit being insured after that time, as reported by Lloyd’s List Intelligence. Like this vessel, many other aging oil tankers continue to operate with high risks, emphasizing the urgent need for increased oversight and preventive measures within the maritime industry.

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