Rich in oil, short on gas

3 Jun 2003 | Spc. Melissa Walther

In a country rich with oil, people are standing in miles-long lines just to get a tank of gas.

To get the sluggish Iraqi economy rolling, the First Marine Expeditionary Force is teaming up with the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade, an Army Reserve unit based out of  Doylestown, Pa., to find ways of getting fuel to the people of Iraq.

"Getting a reliable source of gas and propane is necessary for getting the economy back on its feet," said Lt. Col. Joe Smith, civilian supply officer for the economy and commerce team with the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade.  "If people can't drive they can't get to work or transport anything."

Getting fuel into Iraq is not just an issue of getting cars and busses rolling, fuel is the source of life for the economy here.

"It's an interconnected chain," said Maj. Krista McKinley, I MEF plans action officer.  "If there's no fuel, there's no power; no power, no water from pumping stations, no communications.  Everything falls apart."

It's not just a gas shortage that is causing such a problem for the people. According to Smith, one of the most important things to getting the economy back on its feet is getting propane to the people.

"They use propane to cook," Smith said.  "If there's no propane, they can't cook.  If they can't cook, they are not eating as well and are less inclined to work."

The shortages can be traced to two main problems, Smith said.  First, the refineries and pipelines were damaged in the war and are now being systematically looted.

"These are not random lootings," Smith said.  "Someone out there knows what these factories and pipelines need to function and they are taking just those things."

Not only does the looting draw strength away from the economy but also it is a source of danger to the Iraqi people.

"There are people shooting the pipelines and siphoning off the fuel from there," said McKinley.  "It's a very dangerous process.  Each pipeline carries more than one product.  They could be shooting into jet fuel or natural gas and I'm surprised there aren't more people getting hurt."

The second and largest problem according to Smith is a lack of storage for the crude oil.  In a normal situation, the crude oil has been refined and placed in containers for export, but due to sanctions, the containers can go nowhere.  Once the containers are full, no more can be produced, and this is the situation Iraq is faced with now.

Measures are already in place to import fuel from outside sources and the coalition forces are helping to guard against theft and discourage the developing black market.  Armed Marines and soldiers are now guarding the tanker trucks coming through Kuwait.

The military's responsibility will decrease as coalition military police forces train Iraqis to assume control of local police departments.

To help increase fuel production and make the system more effective, the Iraqi Oil Ministry is being advised by a team of experts from the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid.

The team is staffed with civilian specialists and they are focusing on how to restore Iraqi oil production.  Until production is improved, coalition forces have to find ways to get the fuel to the people.

Right now, the fuel being imported is supposed to fuel one regional government area per week.  In reality according to McKinley, the supply lasts only two days.

She hopes that by end of June enough fuel will be imported so fuel lines will be much shorter.  The focus, though, is not to import fuel, but to help the Iraqis develop their own resources for the Iraqi people.

"We're trying to make our system transparent to the Iraqis," said McKinley.  "When we pull out, we want the system to work for them."