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Missteps Hamper Iraqi Oil Recovery

Times Staff Writer

The failure to rebuild key components of Iraq’s petroleum industry has impeded oil production and may have permanently damaged the largest of the country’s vast oil fields, American and Iraqi experts say.

The deficiencies have deprived Iraq of hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenue needed for national rebuilding efforts and kept millions of barrels of oil off the world market at a time of growing demand.

Engineering mistakes, poor leadership and shifting priorities have delayed or led to the cancellation of several projects critical to restoring Iraq’s oil industry, according to interviews with more than two dozen current and former U.S. and Iraqi officials and industry experts.

The troubles have been compounded in some cases by security issues, poor maintenance and disputes between the U.S. and its main contractor, Houston-based KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Corp., according to the interviews and documents.

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Despite the United States’ spending more than $1.3 billion, oil production remains below the estimated prewar level of 2.5 million barrels per day and well below a December 2004 goal of up to 3 million barrels per day.

Interviews and documents from whistle-blowers show problems with at least three projects deemed crucial to Iraq’s oil production:

* Qarmat Ali water treatment plant. This massive pumping complex is needed to inject water into Iraq’s southern oil fields to aid in oil extraction. Under a no-bid contract, KBR was instructed to repair the complex at a cost of up to $225 million, but not the leaky pipelines carrying water to the fields. As a result, the water cannot be delivered reliably, raising concerns that some of Iraq’s oil may not be recoverable.

* Al Fathah pipelines. As part of the same no-bid contract, the U.S. gave KBR a job worth up to $70 million to rebuild a pipeline network in northern Iraq despite concerns that the project was unsound. In the end, KBR built fewer than half the pipelines, and the project was given to another contractor. The delay has aggravated oil transport problems, which have forced Iraq to inject millions of barrels of oil back into the ground, a harmful practice for the oil fields and the environment. A government audit is being conducted based on a complaint by a whistle-blower.

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* Southern oil well repairs. A $37-million project to boost production at dozens of Iraqi oil wells was canceled after KBR refused to proceed without a U.S. guarantee to protect it from possible lawsuits.

It is striking that although the reconstruction of the northern oil infrastructure has been hampered by security issues, the southern oil fields -- which account for most production -- have been attacked only a few times since the conflict in Iraq began but still face serious problems.

After the 2003 invasion, U.S. officials and KBR moved swiftly, resuming oil production only a month after the war began and slowly increasing output. But after matching the prewar peak of 2.5 million barrels a day in September 2004, production declined to about 2.2 million barrels daily last month.

If the U.S. had successfully completed the planned repairs, Iraq could be producing up to 500,000 additional barrels a day, according to some estimates.

The difference would add up to more than $8 billion a year -- money that the Iraqi government could use for new schools and hospitals, to supplant U.S. reconstruction spending and improve the Iraqi security forces that Washington hopes will replace American troops.

U.S. reconstruction officials acknowledged the delays but said the efforts had turned a corner and that despite the contract disputes, they were satisfied with KBR’s performance. The company avoided a possible cancellation of its contract this year after addressing problems associated with cost estimates. The U.S. also has brought in an Australian-American firm to finish several projects started by KBR that had been delayed.

“Overall, reconstruction is moving forward,” said Bob Todor, the senior U.S. advisor to Iraq’s Oil Ministry. “Like everything else, it took longer than everyone expected.”

KBR officials, meanwhile, said their work reflected the orders they had been given by U.S. reconstruction officials. The rebuilding, they said, takes place under difficult conditions, especially in the north.

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“KBR can’t emphasize enough that it performs all work at the direction of the U.S. government,” spokeswoman Melissa Norcross said in an e-mailed response to questions. “We only do what we are tasked to do.”

Current and former Iraqi oil officials expressed disappointment, frustration and anger at the U.S. performance.

They said that rather than tapping Iraqi state oil company officials, the U.S. program was overseen by American officials with little experience in the oil industry. In an interview, one senior U.S. official managing part of the restoration effort jokingly described his knowledge level as “Oil for Dummies.”

Iraqi officials also said KBR relied too heavily on foreign contractors, conducted lengthy, unnecessary studies and failed to deliver promised equipment. They acknowledged that Iraq needed to spend more on its oil industry but wondered why the U.S. investment had not had more of an effect.

“They need to speed it up a bit,” said Ibrahim Bahr Uloum, the Iraqi oil minister, in an interview. “There’s great work to be done in all these fields.”

Other Iraqis said that the U.S. and KBR simply failed to deliver. “I think we had the worst quality of U.S. service, staff and companies,” said Jaafar Altaie, who was a senior planner at the Oil Ministry and now works with Amman-based Tabouk Energy Group, a consulting firm. “We had maximum rhetoric and minimum results on the ground.”

Only weeks after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, the U.S. hired KBR under a no-bid contract to repair the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant, a complex of twisting pipes and rusting metal that sits in the middle of drab, flat desert a few miles north of Basra in southern Iraq.

Both the United States and Iraq considered the water treatment plant a high priority. Oil rises from the ground in southern Iraq because of natural pressure in the sands. As the oil surges out, the pressure declines, making extraction more difficult.

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Oil and Water

To counter the problem, the Iraqis inject water into the earth to maintain the pressure in the oil field. That water, however, must be first cleaned at Qarmat Ali so that particles or bacteria don’t plug up the holes in the soil that allow the oil to rise.

By August 2004, KBR had completed most repairs at the plant, which had badly deteriorated during 12 years of sanctions and because of the looting that followed the U.S.-led invasion. KBR rebuilt motors, refurbished pumps and installed electrical generators and chlorination and anti-corrosion systems.

But when KBR opened the taps to send the treated water to Iraq’s legendary Rumaila oil field, the deteriorated pipes were unable to handle the increased pressure. The pipeline burst repeatedly, delaying work for weeks on end, KBR and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials said. In the five months ending December 2004, KBR managed to send water through the pipes for only 29 days. Even today, the plant delivers only about a third of its capacity.

To make matters worse, farmers tapped into the pipeline, using it to irrigate their fields. KBR found one local who was watering his entire tomato crop courtesy of the Qarmat Ali pipeline.

Despite the problems, the U.S. never assigned KBR the task of repairing the aging lines. Todor, the U.S. oil advisor, said that by the time the problem became apparent, most of the money available in the south had already been committed to other projects.

The Iraqis, meanwhile, have not invested in repairs, using most of their oil revenue for fuel subsidies and salaries.

“The Iraqis have not had the money to do the work,” Todor said.

On a recent tour of the sprawling, decades-old complex, its decrepit state was obvious. The walls were cracked; motors, valves and pipes were rusted. Dirt and mud covered the floors.

Only two of the five pumps that KBR fixed were operating. An Iraqi engineer said a machine to add cleaning chemicals to the water was unusable. Another system to protect the interior of the pipelines from rust was not being used for fear that the anti-corrosion additive would damage the oil fields.

Neither the U.S. nor KBR have provided additional maintenance or operating funds to the plant since turning it over to the Iraqis. For their part, the Iraqis said KBR had installed substandard equipment and had not provided sufficient training.

“It’s useless. We have material from KBR, but we don’t have documents on how to use it,” said the Iraqi engineer, who requested anonymity because of security concerns.

KBR said it had done all that was asked of it.

“KBR is not responsible to support with the ongoing maintenance and repair of these facilities unless tasked to do so” by the U.S. government, said Stephanie Price, another KBR spokeswoman, in response to questions sent by e-mail. “To date, most of the follow-on problems at [Qarmat Ali] have stemmed from the overall age of the equipment and the availability of spare parts.”

A big part of the problem, some U.S. officials said, was the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversaw initial repairs under the Restore Iraqi Oil project. The Corps, which had little experience in the oil industry before the war, was forced to rely on advice from KBR and other experts in making rebuilding decisions.

Bunnatine Greenhouse, who was the top contracting official in the Corps, sharply criticized its involvement at a congressional hearing in June. “The Corps had absolutely no competencies related to oil production,” said Greenhouse, who also criticized the no-bid contracts awarded to KBR. She was demoted in August. The end result of the U.S. investment here is that Qarmat Ali still does not produce enough water to be used for injection into the oil fields, nor can the water reliably be delivered to the injection stations, which also remain in need of repair.

That means that every day, Iraq forgoes about 200,000 barrels of oil -- or about $11 million in revenue at current Iraqi crude prices, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials. A joint venture formed by Australian firm WorleyParsons Ltd. and Pasadena-based Parsons Corp. was recently brought in to complete the work that KBR began.

The lack of reliable water injection has led to a debate about whether Iraq’s southern oil fields have been permanently damaged. Although nobody is sure, some oil experts fear that America’s failure to fix the problems has worsened damage that may have occurred during Saddam Hussein’s rule.

United Nations oil experts have told the U.S. government that some oil reservoirs in southern Iraq have been so badly managed that the Iraqis will be able to recover only between 15% to 25% of the oil, well below the industry standard of 35% to 60%, a recent Department of Energy report states.

Norm Szydlowski, a U.S. consultant to the Iraqi Oil Ministry, said that the Iraqis had begun an in-depth study of the health of their fields, the first in years.

The possibility of damage “was and is a focus. It is a significant concern,” Szydlowski said. “The extent of the potential damage is really unknown. The Iraqis prudently have been working at this stage of the game as quickly as they can to get the right analysis of their reservoirs.”

But some said the U.S. and Iraq needed to work harder, especially on fixing Qarmat Ali.

“It’s frustrating. You’ve got one of the biggest fields in the world that’s sitting there and needs some help,” said one contractor familiar with the project who asked not to be named. “It’s like your favorite pet dog got hurt and you want to help it.”

The status of reservoirs elsewhere in Iraq is also a concern. Once an oil well begins production, it is difficult to shut it down. But attacks on pipelines in the north are so frequent that the Iraqis can’t export the oil, nor do they have enough capacity to store it.

As a result, when oil production backs up, the Iraqis are forced to pump the oil back into the ground -- a practice widely condemned in the industry because the re-injected oil, which is thicker, can plug fissures through which the petroleum flows. Iraq puts almost 200,000 barrels of oil per day back into the ground -- meaning that Iraq’s net production is even lower than the official figure of 2.2 million barrels.

“Once you have damaged the fields, there is almost nothing you can do about it. I have a great worry that we are not too far from it,” said Farouk Kasim, an Iraqi oil expert, at a conference in London this summer. “The last two years have been a nightmare.”

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Al Fathah

The pipelines at Al Fathah bridge became one of the nightmares of the reconstruction effort.

A squat concrete and steel structure over the Tigris River in northern Iraq, the bridge was bombed by U.S. jets during the 2003 invasion. The attack knocked out a stretch and destroyed a network of oil and gas pipelines that ran underneath.

The 16 pipelines were a crucial part of Iraq’s deteriorating oil infrastructure, moving crude and other petroleum products from northern wells around Kirkuk to Baiji, a dusty refinery town south of the bridge.

The Army Corps of Engineers decided it would be quicker to run the pipelines under the riverbed instead of repairing the bridge. The agency ordered KBR to drill under the river despite warnings against such a route, said a Corps contracting official involved in the project. The official asked to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation from commanders.

Trouble began soon after the project started in January 2004. The soil was unstable, and a borehole drilled to hold the pipes collapsed. In an e-mail obtained by The Times, the contracting official described the project as “placing a pipe in a large box of marbles.”

The project, originally envisioned to take 10 weeks, turned into a nearly yearlong job. As the months went by, the cost soared. In the end, KBR managed to install six of the sixteen pipelines originally planned. Although the Corps said it still had not determined the final cost of the project, one source said it might approach $88 million. KBR defended the project, saying that “unforeseen” subsurface conditions had resulted in “technical challenges.” They also noted that the horizontal drilling needed to install the pipelines below the riverbed had never been done in Iraq, requiring the importation of new equipment.

“KBR ultimately completed six of the drill lines and installed six of the pipelines when [the Army Corps] decided to stop work on the project due to funding limitations at the time,” Price, the KBR spokeswoman, wrote.

Todor, the advisor to the Oil Ministry, said neither the Army Corps nor KBR anticipated the poor soil conditions. KBR and Army Corps officials said they were unaware of any study warning against the pipeline plan.

“In hindsight, maybe you would have done things differently,” Todor said.

In February this year, the U.S. reassigned the pipeline crossing to the joint venture led by WorleyParsons. When the project is completed, Iraq will be able to increase exports and stabilize a system that has suffered constant attack by insurgents in the region around the bridge. Increased flow also will mean that Iraq will have to inject less oil back in the ground around its northern fields.

Two years after the project was first proposed, a senior U.S. official said the fully restored pipeline network would be completed this fall.

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The Wells

Another crucial aspect to restoring Iraq’s oil production have been “well work-overs” -- cleanup jobs that can improve the productivity of oil wells.

The Project and Contracting Office, a government reconstruction agency, wanted KBR to perform 30 work-overs on wells in southern Iraq for $37 million.

Negotiations got bogged down over KBR’s demand that the U.S. indemnify it in case of lawsuits arising from the work, a senior U.S. official said.

KBR insisted on the guarantee, saying that indemnity was provided by governments worldwide. The U.S. said that only the Iraqi government, as a sovereign nation, could give such protection. In July, the two sides reached an impasse and the U.S. terminated the project, according to a statement. Other companies approached by U.S. officials also refused to take on the project without indemnification.

The U.S. has now decided to use the $37 million to train Iraqis to do the work-overs. At stake: an estimated increase of 300,000 barrels of oil per day.

“Indemnification was a big problem. For a lot of companies, it was a stumbling block,” said a senior U.S. official overseeing the work-over project. “Our schedule, though behind, should get a lot better now.”

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Broken Promises

Such promises ring hollow to Iraqis, who are frustrated with the U.S. and KBR. Abdul Raof Ibraheem is a manager at one of Iraq’s largest refineries. His massive complex of rusting metal spheres is nearly silent these days. KBR is supposed to be supplying parts to fix the plant. But the firm recently told Ibraheem that the worldwide spending boom in oil infrastructure had made it hard to purchase the required equipment. The parts will arrive perhaps by next summer, KBR officials told him.

Ibraheem said he had expected more.

“Frankly speaking, I am not satisfied with KBR’s work. What I saw from KBR, their performance is not what we had expected. We heard a lot about KBR, but we’re not satisfied.

“The results have meant nothing for us.”


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