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Missteps Hamper Iraqi Oil Recovery

Efforts to fix facilities founder. Hundreds of millions of dollars are lost as fields deteriorate.

September 26, 2005|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

QARMAT ALI, Iraq — 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.

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.

* 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.

"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."

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