SkyTruth is working to create the world’s first publicly accessible dataset of FSOs and FPSOs, to shed light on their behavior and monitor them for pollution events.
It’s a boat! It’s a platform! It’s…both?
Over the last 19 months, SkyTruth has been working with investigative reporters from the Associated Press on a story that highlights the risks posed by aging vessels which are linked to offshore oil production. This began when the AP team reached out for information on oil spills in Nigeria. We suggested they focus on the deadly Trinity Spirit disaster, and the poorly understood issue of the oil industry’s increasing reliance on FPSOs and FSOs. SkyTruth supported AP’s investigation into the Trinity Spirit, and also helped reveal the full extent of aging oil production and storage vessels operating across the ocean.
What are FPSOs and FSOs?
Floating Production, Storage, and Offloading vessels, more manageably referred to as FPSOs, and their cousins Floating Storage and Offloading vessels (FSOs) occupy a unique niche in the offshore oil supply chain. These massive vessels function as mobile oil and gas platforms. Both types of vessels are used for storing and transferring oil and gas from offshore drilling operations, but as the name implies, FPSOs also produce oil and gas from wells on the seafloor.
FSOs and FPSOs are not well tracked, especially when compared to other vessels at sea, and there is a dearth of information about where these vessels are operating and what risks they pose to marine environments. Some vessels, like the FPSO Al Zaafarana, are so old (manufactured in 1969 and operating since the 1990s) that they have never broadcast an Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracking signal.
The FSO Safer was left derelict off the coast of Yemen for years while still holding over 1 million barrels of oil on board, posing the risk of a major environmental disaster. Fortunately, in late August the UN completed the transfer of oil from the vessel, preventing the risk of disaster.
And as described in the Associated Press story supported by SkyTruth, in 2022, the FPSO Trinity Spirit exploded off the coast of Nigeria, costing at least five lives and leaking more than 40,000 barrels of oil into the ocean.
At SkyTruth, we are committed to increasing transparency across the world’s oceans, and as a part of this commitment, we are working to identify the first public inventory of the world’s FSOs and FPSOs (see Tracking Floating Production Storage & Offloading Vessels (FPSOs) in our 2022 Annual Report). This work will allow us to track the behavior of these vessels, highlight suspicious activity, and monitor them for pollution events using our Cerulean satellite based monitoring system.
Working with the Associated Press
We’ve been working with reporters at the AP since March 2022, investigating the threats posed to the environment by FSOs and FPSOs. As a part of this work, the AP passed on a list of vessels which they had specific interest in due to their interactions with the FPSO Trinity Spirit. Leveraging AIS broadcast data provided by our partners at Global Fishing Watch, we were able to compile lists of vessels that had rendezvoused with the FPSOs. We also began looking for information about times when these vessels had their AIS turned off (or failed to broadcast for extended stretches), as these could serve as indicators of vessels engaged in questionable behavior. In both instances we checked imagery to see if rendezvous were visible, and in the case of AIS gaps, to see if the vessel was still present where it had last broadcast.
After assessing these vessels, we took a broader look at FSOs and FPSOs using Cerulean, our satellite-based oil slick detection system, to assess the impact these ships are having on the ocean. Cerulean was initially trained to detect slicks from moving sources, which have a different appearance from slicks associated with stationary sources, so our results are conservative; we found evidence of 16 vessels which were associated with slicks, totalling over 78,000 gallons of oil using our conservative method of estimating oil slick volumes. This assessment is based on an early Cerulean model, and our research indicates that this is just scratching the surface; in the case of the Al Zaafarana, Cerulean only detected one slick, but visual inspection of satellite imagery reveals that the Al Zaafarana is a chronic polluter, with one- to two-kilometer-long slicks appearing almost daily.
What comes next?
SkyTruth is committed to improving transparency and accountability across our ocean. To support these goals, we are working to release an up-to-date database of FSO and FPSO operating locations, and to provide pollution reports specifically linked to these vessels that regularly produce oil slicks. We are also working to uncover high-risk activity for these vessels – such as AIS misuse and suspicious rendezvous – to help alert regulators about the potential for other problems, such as crew mistreatment, crude oil theft, or trafficking. And as always, SkyTruth is committed to providing this data via easy-to-use tools, so that anyone can monitor these vessels and their impacts.