Making oil the Chechen way

Jan 22, 1997 01:00 AM

On a country road a gang of bearded Chechen men are boiling huge vats of pilfered crude oil, sending up acrid clouds of steam as they brew home-made gasoline of dubious quality. Hundreds of these roadside refineries sprouted during the anarchy of Chechnya's war, when enterprising Chechens tapped into the region's oil fields and a major pipeline to establish do-it-yourself oil companies. This and other small-time operators say they are merely seeking a small slice of a much larger prize that is often overlooked in the Chechen conflict: oil. The war focused attention on the confrontation between Chechen guerrillas and the Russian army. But at the same time, a less dramatic but important struggle has been taking place among several nations and some of the world's biggest oil companies to win control of oil throughout the Caspian Sea region. In Chechnya, the separatist leaders believe the tiny, land-locked, Muslim territory can succeed economically as an independent state based on its own oil reserves and a cut of foreign oil transported across its land. But the stakes are bigger. The nations on the Caspian - Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan - and several major Western oil companies have been carving up the oil and gas riches in and around the sea. And from their perspective, unstable Chechnya is a major inconvenience. At present, there is only one pipeline that could take Caspian oil to the rest of the world, once the new fields begin producing. That's a pipeline that crosses Chechnya. The line now carries oil from southern Russia to refineries in Azerbaijan and before the war in Chechnya. The Chechen leg was repeatedly damaged and shut during the 1994-96 war, though it is expected to be back in working order next month. But while the war was raging, Chechnya was shut out of plans to build two new pipelines in the region, deals that are potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars in future revenues. Two separate groups, made up of regional countries and oil companies, have agreed on two pipeline routes bypassing Chechnya. One will go to the south, the other to the north. Chechnya's current leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, wants the existing pipeline fixed as soon as possible and has told Chechnya's free-lance oil men to stop stealing from the line and the surrounding oil fields.
In the road-side refineries, to make the fuel, oil is pumped into a 12-metric-ton (13.2 US tons) tank. It is heated and moved through several short rusting pipes to three additional tanks. After about 36 hours, an "operator" says, he has about 7 metric tons (7.7 US tons) of diesel fuel, 3 metric tons (US 3.3 tons) of gasoline and some kerosene. "I'd say they're doing pretty well,'' commented an expert. The process is similar to making moonshine alcohol, he said, "the difference being it's much more explosive and some lighter hydrocarbons are coming off and hanging around you and they could blow up too.'' About 100 such refineries sit side-by-side in Tsotsi-Yurt, with hundreds more elsewhere in Chechnya. Every morning, dozens of wheezing, mud-caked trucks line up along an otherwise deserted stretch of road to fill their tanks with fuel to be sold in Grozny. The lemon-coloured gasoline is hawked in glass jars along every main road in the capital. The price - as little as 1,000 rubles a litre (about 70 US cents a gallon) is testament to the efficiency of the tiny refineries, which helped supply Chechnya guerrilla army as well as the civilian population during the war.

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