Libyan employees 'saved oil, gas sector,' oil minister says

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 16, 2011 

BREGA, Libya — When Moammar Gadhafi's loyalists fled this sprawling refinery and petrochemical complex in late August, shortly after Tripoli fell, they left behind lethal "forget-me-nots" for the revolutionaries who unseated him.

There were 40,000 mines, both anti-personnel and anti-tank. A minefield still surrounds the town, and 6,000 mines were planted on what had been a popular beach. The grounds are littered with shells filled with explosives, plant officials said.

Russian-supplied Grad rockets were stacked by the thousands inside the methanol plant, still in their wooden cases, at a location that loyalists no doubt assumed NATO aircraft wouldn't bomb. Grads, which have a range of 25 miles, had been launched from Brega in banks of 40, with devastating impact on the forces trying to overthrow Gadhafi, officials of the national oil company said.

The refinery and liquid gas plant, a component of the Sirte Oil Co. — named for Gadhafi's hometown farther west on Libya's main coastal road — is now the only business in town because the departing forces destroyed both other sources of income.

"They erased all the small businesses. They killed all the livestock," Ali Tarhouni, the rebels' minister of finance and oil, said during a tour of the facility.

But the story of Brega isn't what was destroyed but what was saved.

Tarhouni, who has a Ph.D. from Michigan State University, said that less than 10 percent of the refinery's facilities were damaged during the five months of warfare. Elsewhere, he said, the damage was less than 15 percent. He credits the country's oil sector workers with saving what is Libya's major source of income.

While foreign workers largely fled Libya after NATO began enforcing its no-fly zone, and rebels and Gadhafi loyalists fought pitched battles, Libyan staff stayed on the job, occupying key installations 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in a move to discourage wanton destruction.

"The story is not, as we told you officially, that the engineers had just come to the (oil and gas) fields" at the beginning of September, Tarhouni said. "They've actually been working there over a long period of time, making sure that the maintenance was done."

The same applied to the refineries. At the electrical generating station in Brega, for example, employees said they ate, slept and lived there, just to make sure no one else could take it over.

"The untold story of the revolution was the courage of the people who work in the oil sector," Tarhouni said. "We have engineers who had no cover, no protection. They ventured into the desert, they protected the oil fields." He added that the risks they took "will make this industry rebound, and rebound a lot faster."

Brega and the half-dozen other petroleum-processing complexes that dot Libya's Mediterranean coast provide nearly all the country's export income and hold the key to the oil-rich land of 6 million people getting onto its feet.

Tarhouni has lived in American exile for nearly all of Gadhafi's 42 years in power, and he's on leave from his post teaching economics at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business in Seattle.

Tarhouni used the visit — his first field trip out of the capital, where he'd proclaimed the fall of the Gadhafi on Aug. 25 — to announce that Libya would resume oil production soon, though it would take a year to reach full prewar production levels .

The Brega complex, built by Esso in the 1960s, includes an oil refinery, a gas plant that produces liquid natural gas and a petrochemical sector built in the 1970s that produces methanol, urea and ammonia. It provides gasoline to serve the region as far as Benghazi. In peacetime, it exports about 20,000 barrels of oil a day, said Salleh Abdali, a Tarhouni deputy.

Gadhafi's forces destroyed at least four oil storage tanks, plant officials said, and many of the others were in need of substantial maintenance. NATO bombed the complex's clubhouse, a communications tower and other facilities after plant employees tipped the alliance that they were being used to store weapons, Tarhouni said.

According to plant officials, the biggest problem for the facility now is ensuring its overall security and the safety of its employees.

A loyalist guerrilla-style assault Monday on the refinery at Ras Lanouf, 60 miles west, was a reminder that Gadhafi's forces remain capable of mayhem. Seventeen security guards were killed in the attack.

At Brega, the Grad rockets have been mostly removed from the methanol plant. The number there — at least 1,000 cases were visible in one facility alone — was staggering, but not unusual, according to Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch. Bouckaert said he'd visited a base in Tripoli after the capital fell where there were "dozens of warehouses, each holding 10,000 to 12,000 Grad rockets."

Rebel forces had the luck to capture the colonel in Gadhafi's army who'd supervised the mining, together with his map of where the mines had been placed. Security personnel are now removing them, though the plant's managers appealed to Tarhouni for more military protection and assistance. No foreign mine-clearing organizations are on the scene — or had been requested.

The most shocking discovery for the refinery complex workers, at least from the description by Fathi Issa, the chief manager, were the mines on the beach. Gadhafi loyalists had a plausible military reason for placing the mines there: to prevent NATO or rebel forces from even contemplating an amphibious landing. But they'd made the sand where children used to play explosively dangerous.

Between 10 a.m. and early afternoon on a recent morning, "our men removed 700 mines from the beach," Issa said. That leaves roughly 5,300 to go.

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