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EXCLUSIVE: Oil blow for Libya's rebels

Misla and Sarir shut in "indefinitely"; Insurgents claim Qadhafi busting sanctions

DAMAGE to the pipeline linking the rebel-held Sarir and Misla oilfields, in Libya’s east, to a port on the north coast is so severe that the Transitional National Council (TNC) does not know when exports will resume, a senior figure within the rebellion said today.

The news ends the TNC's hopes, first expressed in an interview with Petroleum Economist last month in Benghazi, that oil exports from Tobruk would shortly resume, bringing much-needed income to the rebel government.

Nine workers from Arabian Gulf Oil (Agoco) were killed when forces loyal to Muammar Qadhafi bombed a booster station in the middle of the pipeline to Tobruk on 21 April.

Flows to Tobruk through the pipeline had already been shut in following an attack on surface facilities at the Misla oilfield on 4 April. Misla and Sarir, a larger oilfield, share some processing facilities, so output from both fields was halted.

Together the fields produced about 300,000 barrels a day (b/d) before the war. The TNC and Agoco, which operates the fields, told Petroleum Economist in interviews in Benghazi last month that repairs to the Misla facilities could see output, at a lower rate, begin again “within weeks”.

But that was before the more damaging attack on the booster station along the pipeline, which has severely dented the TNC’s hopes of restoring the east's oil production and exports.

Booster

So far, the rebels have exported just one cargo of oil from the Marsa el-Hariga export terminal, next to Tobruk. Swiss trading firm Vitol lifted 1 million barrels from the port on 6 April.

After assessing the damage to the pipeline, a senior official in the TNC said the entire booster station may need to be replaced. But Agoco, a unit of Tripoli-controlled National Oil Company that is now in the hands of the Benghazi-based rebel government, has insufficient capacity to do that.

“The booster equipment may be needed from abroad,” an oil industry adviser who now works for the TNC, told Petroleum Economist in an interview on 11 May. “Agoco doesn’t keep complete replacements. Pipes are fine, but not a huge compressor the size of a room.”

However, the adviser said the area close to the booster remains too insecure for a replacement to be brought in. He added that contractors may be extremely hesitant to go to the area.

The attack on the booster station came after a column of 60 to 70 vehicles carrying Qadhafi forces drove up from the southeast of Libya, hesaid. The force contained mercenaries from either Chad or northwest Sudan, he said.

Sanctions

The TNC has asked Nato to defend its oil installations in the southeast of the country. But the adviser said the Qadhafi loyalists responsible for the attack on the booster station are now in hiding in Jalu and Awilah, two towns about 400 km south of Benghazi, and close to the pipeline.

Nato cannot strike while the forces are in civilian areas. The organisation was not available for comment.

Meanwhile, the TNC said it has alerted Nato to two tankers of fuel it claims are heading to Tripoli to supply the Qadhafi regime.

The TNC said the imports, which would defy UN sanctions imposed on the country, were being handled by the General National Maritime Transport Company (GNMTC), a state-owned firm under the control of Hannibal Qadhafi, one of the dictator’s sons.

The trades may have been arranged through offshore companies controlled by the GNMTC, theadviser said. He said efforts to prevent the cargoes from reaching Tripoli were under way, but refused to give more details.

One person with knowledge of trades into Libya said Russian and Chinese ships are thought to have been unloading fuel onto Libyan boats in international waters, in order to prevent interdiction. He said sanctions enforcement had so far been shoddy. Petroleum Economist could not independently confirm these trades.

One refinery in the Qadhafi-held west, Zawiya, is still thought to be operating at about 60% of its 120,000 b/d capacity. But queues for fuel in Tripoli are said to have grown fourfold in length in the past few weeks.

Earlier in the conflict, rebel forces successfully intercepted a tanker bound for Tripoli and siphoned off 25,000 barrels of fuel.

Reports from ship tracking firms last month said a Vitol tanker had arrived in Tobruk on 17 April to unload a cargo of diesel to supply rebel forces and civilians in the east.

Two refineries, the 20,000 b/d Tobruk and 10,000 b/d Benghazi plants, continue to supply some fuel to rebels.

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