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Libya rebuilds oil sector as foreign workers wait

Libya rebuilds oil sector as foreign workers wait

Questions of security keep foreign oil companies at bay, which is just as well for Libyans, who want to serve their countrymen first before looking at oil exports.

September 24, 2011 5:20 by

Scribbled in blue marker in Arabic on the walls of Brega oil terminal is a message meant to cheer returning workers: “Gaddafi is gone and the place has been checked.”

Oil production has restarted in some Libyan fields including Sarir in the east, but the near-deserted Sirte Oil headquarters to the east of Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown is testament to the damage the conflict has done to the country’s main industry.

Amid a cluster of crude oil storage tanks, gleaming white in the Mediterranean sunshine, stand at least two charred grey ones. The chimney of the site’s power plant lies in a gnarled wreck in the courtyard. A warehouse used for weapons storage, hit by a NATO bomb, is a tangle of wood and piping. A stash of missiles nestles in a petrochemical site, stored there by Gaddafi troops who took the gamble that NATO would not target expensive infrastructure.

Brega is one of a cluster of export terminals and Libyan oil companies that are eager to get things started in a business worth about $176 million a day before the conflict. The country provides only around 2 percent of global oil consumption but its oil is prized for being easy to refine.

Some oil workers have marvelled that Gaddafi did not inflict damage to Libya’s oil facilities on the scale of Saddam Hussein, who ordered hundreds of oil wells to be set ablaze on his retreat from Kuwait in 1991. There has been no comprehensive survey of the Sirte Basin, which holds most of the country’s oil and gas fields, but interim oil minister Ali Tarhouni estimates the war has left 10-15 percent of Libya’s oil infrastructure damaged.

Yet safety remains a major concern, especially after militia killed 17 guards at the nearby Ras Lanuf refinery last week. Brega is probably out of range of even the most sophisticated rockets in Gaddafi’s arsenal. But the area is full of mines, and the country is strewn with ordnance dating back to World War Two.

Fathi Issa, chairman of the management committee of state-owned Sirte Oil, waves a small, disk-shaped anti-personnel landmine the colour of milky tea, and tells reporters that 6,000 of the explosives have been found on Brega beach.

“We will bring all the workers back when it’s safe. We find something new every day,” Issa told Reuters last week.

According to official figures from the National Transitional Council (NTC), 40,000 mines were planted around the Brega area during this year’s fighting; Military spokesman Ahmed Bani told Reuters an order for 120,000 from Brazil was placed by a Gaddafi officer during the conflict, suggesting the number could be much higher.

Rabea, an engineer at Sirte Oil who only gave his first name, commutes daily along the Brega-Ajdabiya coastal road which is flanked on both sides by war graves. He has tried three times to re-establish his daily routine since the war began, most recently in late August. “I’m not afraid. The mines are mostly on the seaside,” he said, his stoicism typical of many Libyans who have witnessed months of destruction.

Foreign oil companies are less nonchalant.

“I know many think we are cynical people ready to do anything to earn some bucks, but we are not going to put our staff in harm’s way. We need to make sure security is there,” said a French oil industry source.

Sirte Oil’s Issa says that besides mines, one problem has been sabotage to the Hateiba gasfields south of Brega. The tops of wells were found exposed, causing gas to leak out. Looting has forced many companies to order new equipment. Ras Lanuf Oil and Gas Company, or Rasco, told Reuters its tugboats were stolen by…


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