The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has caused some industry experts to reflect on how their country would cope in a similar emergency.
While Iran has considerable experience of dealing with onshore oilfield fires caused started during past conflicts, its offshore industry is weaker, suggesting it would struggle to deal with a major disaster at sea.
As the extent of the environmental damage in the Gulf of Mexico became evident, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and several senior Iranian oil industry officials offered assistance with capping the leak.
There was little chance the offer would be taken seriously in Washington, given the frosty relationship with Tehran, not to mention the tenor of some of the offers of help.
“It is a matter of shame and disgrace that the US, United Kingdom and others who regard themselves as centres of technology and as superpowers of industry and international economics should be unable to contain the flow of oil,” said Brigadier-General Rostam Ghasemi, head of the Khatamolanbia Construction Headquarters, a Revolutionary Guards unit involved in several construction and energy projects.
Ghasemi’s unit was listed by name in the latest round of United Nations Security Council sanctions approved in June.
However, some domestic Iranian media outlets took a different line, advising officials to leave the Americans alone and focus on problems closer to home.
After all, the comments from officials on the US situation came after emergency teams struggled to extinguish a fire at an onshore oil well in Naftshahr.
The blaze, which began late May, took five weeks to extinguish, and affected a well that had been producing at a rate 60 per cent higher than the Gulf of Mexico shaft.
The American spill and the Naftshahr fire led to a flurry of meetings in Iran which discussed the oil industry’s capacity to manage such situations.
The most high-powered event, in late July, brought together the upper management of the National Iranian Oil Company, NIOC, and resulted in two main recommendations – training up experts to deal with offshore oil spills, and acquiring the right equipment for such an eventuality, either by manufacturing it in Iran or sourcing it abroad through unofficial channels.
Mahmoud Zirakchian, managing director of the national Offshore Oil Company, pointed out that the offshore drilling sector was lacking in both modern methodologies and technology.
Zirakchian should know – his employees include not only veteran drilling teams, but people who learned how to put out major fires the hard way, during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
Attacks on offshore rigs in the Persian Gulf caused blazes that took an average of six months to get under control, while repair work went on for many years afterwards, and in some cases has yet to get under way.
This experience meant Iranian oilmen were well placed to help put out wellhead fires in Kuwait following the 1990 Iraqi invasion of that country.
But as an industry expert points out, Iranians may be experts at fighting fires, but the methods they use are obsolete.
“We use the traditional method known as direct attack – we initially extinguish the fire at the collar of the well, and then fill the collar with cement and mud and, as they say, choke it off,” he said. “With the more modern methods, no one attacks the well directly. Instead, they drill a horizontal shaft that connects with the well below the collar, and inject cement and mud from there.”
While the Gulf of Mexico well was located at a depth of 1,500 metres, another Iranian oil expert points out that his country’s capacity to contain offshore oil leaks is “limited to depths of 90 metres”.
Part of the problem is that Iran has to import much of its oil industry equipment, including items used in containing leaks. The latest round of US and UN sanctions in June has made such technology purchases more difficult than ever.
“Much of Iran’s offshore drilling operation is reliant on foreign companies. We don’t even have enough drilling machinery and offshore platforms,” according to an expert from the drilling sector, “The most experienced Iranian welders haven’t practiced working at depths of more than 40 metres.”
Apart from obsolete technology, Iran’s oil industry suffers a constant loss of expertise as skilled staff go elsewhere.
According to Mahmoud Mohaddes, former chief executive of the National Iranian Exploration Company, “We are constantly training up new people, but when our foreign and regional rivals pay them a several times what we do, we have no way of retaining them.”
Apart from pay considerations, the Iranian drilling industry’s safety record is poor by international standards. A report from the NIDC last year showed that over the previous eight years, the industry suffered 20 deaths per 100 million work hours, compared with an international average of three deaths.
A mid-ranking manager in the NIDC concludes, “If this country wants to help anyone else, we should first undertake efforts to solve our own domestic problems. The international oil giants are more than capable of resolving their own problems.”
By. Kaveh Sarafraz
This article originally appeared in IWPR.net and is produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, www.iwpr.net