Syria’s Oil Producing Regions Suffer From Theft, Pollution

After many of Syria’s eastern oil fields fell into the hands of rebel groups, operations to steal oil and primitive refineries threaten the region’s environment.

al-monitor A pump jack that is now under the control of the Free Syrian Army, according to activists, is seen in Raqqa province, Sept. 12, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Molhem Barakat.

Topics covered

water pollution, syrian opposition, syria, environmental issues, agriculture

Oct 29, 2013

Columns of smoke rise under a thick black cloud. This is the eastern region of Syria, which was once described as the “Syrian breadbasket.” Yet, the breeze finds no wheat stalks to caress, no tired farmers with their machetes to relieve. The eastern region is now a fissured land where workers’ foreheads are stained with black spots. No need to ask why. Black gold has become “the concern of the region” after the government lost oil wells that fell under the control of opposition forces. Opposition members and residents of nearby villages have turned into “oil traders” and “extraction and refining workers.”

Most of the oil fields in Syria are located in the eastern and northeastern region (Al-Jazeera), and they are divided into three provinces, namely Hassakeh (which includes five fields), Deir al-Zour (six fields) and Raqqa (six fields). All of these fields are outside the control of the government, except for the Al-Omar oil field in the rural areas to the southwest of Deir al-Zour, after the Syrian army regained control of it earlier this year. Conflicting militant groups share control of the fields with Kurdish protection units. The biggest field is under the control of the Kurdish units (the Al-Rmailan field in the eastern part of the Hassakeh province).

While official Syrian estimates indicate a decline in oil production from 380,000 barrels a day to as low as 20,000 barrels per day, facts on the ground show otherwise. The “extraction and refining of oil production is ongoing, albeit in smaller quantities. Yet, this production is not going into government coffers,” according to a source closely following the oil issue in Syria.

“The Oil Ministry announced that it produces about 20,000 barrels per day. This is a correct figure, since this is the quantity produced in the fields that are under the government’s control (the Al-Omar fields). Meanwhile, militant factions and Kurdish protection units take charge of oil extraction, refining and selling on their own account,” the source added.

The source explained, “Rmailan fields used to produce about 170,000 barrels per day. These fields are currently out of the government’s control and run by the Kurdish units, which extract oil and sell part of it. These units refine the other part using primitive refining machines.

“The other fields are disputed among extremist factions, and some of them are under the control of small and local armed factions, all of which extract and sell crude oil by smuggling it to Turkey, or by even selling it to the government through intermediaries. They refine part of it using primitive refining methods, whereby derivatives such as diesel and gasoline are sold to citizens or traders,” the source added.

According to the source, the [environmental] dangers related to the Syrian oil issue are more serious than the economic aspect, which involves the theft of domestic wealth and removes this important sector from the Syrian national budget. “Oil theft led to the exclusion of this sector from the budget. This has presented the government with an additional burden, namely that it must buy petroleum products to meet the domestic demand for these goods. It should be noted that the government sells fuel at subsidized prices, estimated at half their purchase cost. Sometimes it buys oil from Iran, and other times from Latin American countries —Venezuela is the most important supplier of petroleum products in Syria. However, there are other risks that disastrously affect the Syrian economy itself and Syria in general,” the source added.

The source explained, “The process of oil extraction is not an easy one. The mere act of extracting oil from the ground leads to major pollution in the region it is extracted from, in the absence of precautions, protection and preventative means. During oil extraction, neither Kurdish units nor militant factions pay attention to these preventive measures. This means that all types of contamination risks — even radiation — have hit oil extraction sites and surrounding areas.”

The source added, “The dozens of crude oil refineries of the Kurdish units are used to produce some oil derivatives such as diesel and gasoline. The products produced are of a very low quality. Also, militant factions, local factions and some investors own about 2,000 primitive refineries. These all work on oil refining and extracting poor quality derivatives, in the framework of primitive production conditions that do not take into account environmental standards. These refineries emit smoke and fumes into the air, which leads to further pollution. This has caused the formation of a black cloud over the eastern region of Syria, which will have disastrous results for the area’s residents, water sources and agricultural land, which will inevitably be deserted.”

For his part, Salah al-Jani, a petrochemical engineer, explained the dangers resulting from the process of oil extraction without adopting preventive measures as well as those of primitive oil refining. He stressed that most of the dangers are “catastrophic." He added, “Oil extraction and refining technology aims at achieving the closed cycle, that is, the complete separation of hydrocarbons from the surrounding area, or the complete separation of hydrocarbons from the environment, soil, water and air. This goal reinforces the progress reached in ecology, the science of natural and human resources investment, with the highest productivity and lowest impact on human beings, property and the environment in general.”

He continued, “When hydrocarbons go out of their cycle — into wells, pipes or tanks — the composition of environmental components will be radically changed. In such a case, it will be a long time before the soil is suitable for agriculture, groundwater will no longer be suitable for use and surface and sea water will be at stake. The air will, in short, be poisonous. The associated water — when produced it must be separated before being transported, and it is also called class water — contains salts that threaten plant life, surface water and groundwater. It also carries natural radioactive compounds called NORM, with a level of concentration that cannot be neglected and of an intensity that lasts for years.

“In addition, fires can erupt at any moment — even during normal operations — as errors can only be largely avoided, but not prevented. Fire is one of the worst enemies of hydrocarbons, be they liquid or gas.”

Jani said to As-Safir, “All of these effects can be curbed in the extraction, transport, refining and storage processes, when practiced in firmly closed cycles, where waste is processed to neutralize the harmful effects on the environment. If there are no specific cycles for each effluent — cycles that are subject to systematic running, surveillance, inspection and maintenance — the environment will be subject to pollution that could be disastrous.”

According to Jani, in the Syrian fields that are no longer under the control of the authorities — and amid widespread theft of oil to be sold to Turkey, where actors do not have the necessary staff nor the technical means (they dismantle the equipment that can be dismantled to sell it to Turkey) — the current situation is catastrophic, to say the least. This is for a number of reasons, chief among them:

Due to poor maintenance of the oil wells, the groundwater will be polluted with oil and associated gas during the process of lifting the oil from the well. It is worth noting that a single milliliter of oil can contaminate large quantities of water.

Once liquid oil (oil and associated water) reaches the surface — where the cycle becomes open — the associated gas is separated. This gas consists of toxic and potentially explosive hydrocarbons as well as sulfide hydrogen. The latter is present in varying degrees in oil (it can be detected at 0.5 parts per million) and has unique characteristics that can cause serious poisoning. At 100 ppm, the olfactory nerves are poisoned, which makes it impossible to smell the gas no matter the concentration. At 500 ppm, the risk of death becomes probable and sulfide hydrogen becomes explosive.

Soil contamination by hydrocarbons and saltwater associated with oil [wastes] requires very expensive soil rehabilitation operations. These works were underway before the outbreak of the Syrian events and involved rehabilitating soil previously contaminated by water associated with oil. The cost of these operation reached hundreds of millions of Syrian pounds.

On the other hand, oil distilling operations by primitive means entail the risk of explosion and fire. Dreadful incidents have occurred and are still happening to date, given the proximity of ignition sources to the oil and its emitted gas. This risk is also due to [those working in these refineries] being ignorant of oil derivatives’ properties and the methods for handling them.

Carrying out oil operations in open areas causes the gases emitted before and during distillation to reach the adjacent areas, and this is according to the distilled quantities. In this respect, it is worth noting that even the so-called mobile refineries (dedicated to the distillation of oil) emit large quantities of hydrocarbon gases of high concentration. It is also worth mentioning that in workplaces, the authorized ppm level of fumes emitted by some oil derivatives should be a lot lower in comparison to the current level, which is in the hundreds of ppm. Thus, residential areas currently face real risks resulting from exposure to petroleum gases, the effect of which may be irreversible. With time, areas where oil or surface water gather will turn into a source of alpha, beta and gamma radiation. In this respect, the government has prepared radioactive maps drawn for each oil production and storage site, to follow up on workers' protection programs and operations aimed at rehabilitating contaminated soil to make it suitable for agriculture again. In the meantime, these radiations and emissions lack supervision, and currently all sites need a new radiological mapping system that requires costly work.

Jani added, “In light of the quantities of stolen oil (in the absence of accurate figures in this respect), the quantities of water associated with oil and laid on the surface of the earth (ranging from 1-90% of the produced liquid) and the volumes of gases released into the atmosphere — in addition to primitive transportation and distillation operations and the accidents that occurred so far — one might say that the Syrian environment is under heavy attack.” Jani also stressed that many of these environmental rehabilitation efforts have become extremely difficult — if not impossible — not to mention the enormous economic losses indirectly affecting the environment.

Local sources indicated the start of the spread of a group of diseases in several areas in the countryside of Hassakeh and Deir al-Zour, especially in areas adjacent to oil fields and primitive refineries. The sources also said that several skin diseases are spreading in the region including skin infections and skin cancers. Furthermore, there have been several cases of births defects, most recently in the city of Shahil in the Deir al-Zour countryside. This comes at a time when vast agricultural areas are no longer cultivated (wheat in particular), whether due to farmers shifting to other jobs given the high cost of production, due to the clashes that prevented agricultural work, or even due to pollution caused by oil extraction and refining operations. The latter reason seems to have the most significant effect, due to its future impact on the agricultural production process. It is worth mentioning that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) estimates indicate that wheat production in Syria dropped to dangerously low levels in 2013, leading to a state of food insecurity that is likely to persist.

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