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Kenya explosion exposes lethal lines that tempt the desperately poor

Oil and gas companies often fail to bury or protect their pipelines in developing nations as they face little legal backlash

In the last two years there have been at least 30 major pipeline explosions and leaks of oil and gas, and possibly hundreds of smaller ones. Many have led to injuries and deaths but there has been nothing on the scale of the Nairobi explosion since 2006, when around 270 people died after a vandalised oil pipeline exploded in the Abule Egba district of Lagos, in Nigeria.

The explosions mostly take place in poor countries because international oil and gas companies often fail to bury or protect their pipelines as they would have to do by law in rich countries. The easily accessible pipes, which often run through slums and informal settlements in burgeoning cities, are tempting to desperately poor communities, who often have no electricity and must rely on oil lamps for lighting and power.

Groups of youths drill into the pipes or sabotage the pumping stations. Many have set up rudimentary refineries, where the stolen crude oil is heated up to make “bush” diesel good enough to run generators and older cars. Many of these DIY refineries explode, and fires sometimes destroy large areas.

The oil companies say the scale of pipeline theft is increasing. The Shell corporation has claimed that millions of gallons of crude oil are stolen from its pipes every year in the Niger delta. The China Petroleum & Chemical corporation has claimed that criminals drilled into its pipelines 19,804 times between 2002 and 2009, causing the company to lose 47,000 tonnes of oil. Companies pay millions of pounds a year to guard pipelines.

But organised crime has moved into oil theft, and is now thought to be paying groups to break into oil industry equipment and steal many thousands of gallons at a time. Tankers or barges are then filled and the oil is exported – often with the help of corrupt bureaucrats and police forces.

Pipelines in urban areas are also vulnerable to construction companies, who often rupture pipes as they clear land for development. Many pipelines are now 40 years old and heavily corroded, leading to natural leaks of gas and oil.

Pipelines have also become easy targets for saboteurs. Occidental’s Caño Limón pipeline, in Colombia, was sometimes attacked more than 100 times a year by Farc rebels in the 1990s. Last month Libyan rebels turned off a valve on a major pipeline south of Tripoli and poured cement over it.

Many companies now pay the military to protect their oil pipelines. BP has, in the past, employed the Colombian army; Exxon Mobil has declared a large area around the Chad-Cameroon pipeline out of bounds; and Shell pays contractors to protect its lines throughout Nigeria. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds