This image from video provided by Bolaji John shows the burning Trinity Spirit anchored 15 miles off the coast of Nigeria, which caught fire on Feb. 2, 2022. The ship had no insurance, no flag, and had fallen into a state of disrepair. Five workers were killed and two others left unaccounted for in the blast. (Bolaji John via AP)

World - Deadly Explosion off Nigeria Points to Threat From Aging Oil Ships Around the World

OKITIPUPA, Nigeria (AP) – It was the dead of night when the ship caught fire, Patrick Aganyebi remembers, but the flames made it seem as bright as day.

The explosion that night woke him and knocked him to the floor. He tucked his phone and his ID card in his pockets, strapped on a life jacket and made his way to the upper deck. As the flames barreled toward him, he prepared to jump nearly 100 feet (30 meters) into the sea.

Five workers were killed and two others presumed dead in the blast on the Trinity Spirit, a rusting converted oil tanker anchored 15 miles (24 km) off the coast of Nigeria that pulled crude oil from the ocean floor. It was by the grace of God, Aganyebi said, that he and two fellow crewmen escaped, rescued by a pair of fishermen as the burning vessel sank along with 40,000 barrels of oil.

Aging Shadow Fleet, Shipping Russian Oil, Poses Disaster Risk

The Trinity Spirit’s explosion in February of last year stands among the deadliest tragedies on an oil ship or platform in recent years. The Associated Press’ review of court documents, ship databases, and interviews with crew members reveals that the 46-year-old ship was in a state of near-total disrepair, and the systems meant to ensure its safe and lawful operation – annual inspections, a flag registry, insurance – had gradually fallen away.

The Trinity Spirit fits a pattern of old tankers put to work storing and extracting oil even while on the brink of mechanical breakdowns. At least eight have been shut down after a fire, a major safety hazard, or the death of a worker in the last decade, according to an AP review. More than 30 are older than the Trinity Spirit and still storing oil around the world.

Jan-Erik Vinnem, who has spent his career studying the risks of offshore oil production, said he’s sometimes shocked when he sees pictures of oil ships in Africa.

“I call them ‘floating bombs,'” he said.


Aging Hulls

The Trinity Spirit was part of a class of vessels that extracts oil offshore and stores it at sea. They are known as floating production storage and offloading units – FPSOs – or as FSOs, floating storage and offloading units, when used only for storage. Since the 1970s, they’ve become increasingly popular for developing oil in deep waters and in places where no pipelines exist. According to the environmental group SkyTruth, there are some 240 in operation today.

FPSOs are unlike most ships for one key reason: They stay in place. Once attached to the ocean floor, they can linger at the same oil field for years or even decades. They may be surveyed by in-country regulators or hired inspectors, but they operate outside the normal flow of shipping traffic and the added safety and legal inspections that take place in port.

“If a vessel is sitting in a country’s domestic waters and is not going around trading … then you’re not going to have that same level of oversight,” said Meghan Mathieson, strategy director at the Canadian-based Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping.

More than half the current fleet of FPSOs are recycled oil tankers, according to Oslo-based Rystad Energy, which keeps data on the ships. Senior analyst Edvard Christoffersen said that without a major repair, most oil ships have hulls built to last about 25 years. But some FPSOs are used far longer, sometimes to dangerous effect.

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