By Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty on assignment in Zurwarah, Libya
Drive west from Tripoli along the Mediterranean coast for an hour an a half and you’ll see it in the distance: the gas flare at the Mellitah Oil & Gas Company’s massive processing plant in Zuwarah.
Just a few weeks ago rebels and Gadhafi loyalists were shooting it out right down the road. Houses and stores are scarred with blackened holes where shells hit.
The complex, which processes and exports crude oil, natural gas, condensed gas and other products, survived intact but the last export of crude oil was in March. Most of the Libyan workers were scared off by the fighting and foreign workers pulled out en masse.
Some natural gas still is flowing to nearby power plants but gas exports to Europe stopped shortly after the revolution began. By the water’s edge you can see the gas pipeline behind a fence, curving down like the crook of an arm and disappearing into the earth. From here it stretches 330 miles under the Mediterranean Sea to Sicily, providing gas for Italy. The company is hoping it can restart gas supplies before the European winter sets in.
In Tripoli, at the headquarters of Mellitah Oil & Gas, we meet Najmi M. Karim, the new chairman, appointed just a few days ago. He’s moving into his new office at company headquarters.
"The biggest challenge for us is to get back to production levels before events. This is our target,” Karim said.
“Events” is one of the words Libyans now use to refer to the uprising of February 17th.
Karim says the company’s facilities in the east and west of Libya suffered minimal damage in the conflict but officials in Tripoli still have not been able to establish contact with their El Feel oil field in the south where fighting still is ongoing.
The facilities of other Libyan oil companies, he says, may have been damaged, especially ports and terminals. Some fields have been hit by vandalism.
There are other challenges, including bringing back on-line equipment that has sat idle for more than half a year.
For Mellitah, Karim says, getting workers back on the job is the first challenge.
“You have to first bring back the people to the field. This is the starting point. Without people in the field you cannot do anything,” he says. “Having the workers back in the field requires some logistics support from an accommodation point of view, catering, transportation, all these kinds of supports.”
Safety is another concern. At the complex safety supervisor Abdulbaset Montaser instructs us to wear yellow safety helmets and hands us emergency masks in case of any danger. He quickly reassures us: “The system that we have here is very good system and high technology system so, for six years, we don’t have any problem with that, we don’t have any explosion here.”
Inside the control room workers watch computers monitoring every aspect of production.
“Please reduce the downstation steam,” one engineer instructs over a radio.
A majority, 85%, of Libya’s exports of its high-quality, low-sulfur light sweet crude go to Western Europe but oil experts say the country currently is producing only 10-15% of its normal 1.6 billion barrels a day.
“To reach the maximum of 1.6 million barrels per day, before the revolution started, that could happen anytime between a year or two years from now," Manouchehr Takin of the Centre for Global Energy tells CNN.
Walking alongside the intense blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea with Mellitah’s marine superintendant, Adel Sager, we gaze out at the now-empty pier where ships dock to load crude oil for export.
The dock stretches two kilometers into the sea. Two tugboats wait expectantly by the quay.
“These ships come in from France and Germany?” I ask him. “Yes,” he says, from many, many different nationalities and countries.” But the skyline is empty.
Sager, and other Libyan oil workers are hoping those ships will be back soon.