Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Libya’s rebels start pumping 300k bc/d before Aug. 1

The oil fields were bombed severely by Col. Gadhafi’s forces before rebels fought his army back and seized control of the east in February. There was enough oil stored in the tank farms of Tobruk for the rebels to sell four supertankers of oil on the international market – whose receipts became the main source of financing for eastern Libya’s economy and the rebel struggle in the months since Feb. 17.

But the last sale was 45 days ago. Of the $100-million donated by Turkey, $90-million was used to buy tankerloads of oil from Italy – a reversal of the usual relationship. That has provided the last remaining reserve of petroleum for the entire region and its pickup-truck army.

To sell more, the oil fields and their equipment still need major repairs. Italian repair crews have been working around the clock for months, but there are still difficult repairs to be made to turbines and to equipment that separates oil and gas.

At an interview with rebel oil officials in the key port and refining city of Tobruk, Muhammad Al-Ubaydi of the Brega Petroleum Marketing Company said that if things go well they may be able to start pumping 300,000 barrels a day (their prewar capacity was 500,000) before Aug. 1, and theoretically begin selling tankerloads of oil a week later.

“We need it badly – we need to pump the oil through Tobruk very urgently. We need the money to get food and to make payroll,” he said.

Senior officers from the rebel militias said this week that fuel shortages could force them to delay their push toward Tripoli. The rebels are effectively fighting on three fronts, in the hills of the west, in Misrata in the north, and in Brega in the south. This makes supply lines very fuel-intensive.

And there are signs that Col. Gadhafi, who has deep reserves of fuel and cash around Tripoli, is waging economic warfare with the knowledge that the east is running short of everything. On Tuesday, the region’s sheep farmers reported that Bedouin tribesmen had been paid by the dictator to buy up all the female sheep and animal-feed supplies from across the Egyptian border, destroying one of the few remaining food supplies and making civilians even more dependent on fuel to provide their food needs.

Few places in the world are as dependent on petroleum as Libya: All water for drinking and irrigating crops is delivered by diesel-fuelled well pumps from deep beneath the desert or produced using giant diesel-powered desalination plants; all electricity is generated with petroleum-powered turbines.

“Without oil, nobody in this country will have water to drink,” says Nasser Bubteina, head of the eastern Libya branch of the Great Man-Made River, a huge network of pipelines and tunnels that pumps water from beneath the Sahara to the homes and fields of Libya.

Mr. Bubteina has just barely been able to pump enough water to supply Benghazi with water, because the generators used by his pumping stations have been forced to serve double duty, providing southern Libya with electricity in the mornings and evenings. As it stands, he has enough stored to provide five days’ drinking water if fuel is cut off or diverted to the troops.

But there has been no water for crop irrigation. Farmers were able to plant and grow a successful crop for the spring harvest season because reservoirs contained three months’ supply. But they are now empty, and unless far more petroleum or money becomes available, farmers will be unable to plant this month for the autumn harvest.

“Fuel is the major issue here – crops and water and electricity, not to mention the war, everything runs on fuel,” Mr. Bubteina says. “We live and die by oil here.”

And as the oil dwindles to a trickle, the rebels of Benghazi are being forced to decide between guns and butter, between medicine and water and infantry advances – in short, between victory and survival.

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