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Southern Iraq’s toxic twilight: burning gas and poisoning air

By Alissa J. Rubin and Clifford Krauss, © The New York Times Co., from The Denver Post eEdition, July 17, 2020

NAHRAN OMAR, IRAQ»The men of Nahran Omar, a village in the heart of southern Iraq’s oil country, filed into a Shiite shrine clutching envelopes with X-rays, medical reports and death certificates. They had come to describe the misery they say is caused by the burning gas and chemicals spewing out of the oil wells in their village. Each one had a sick son or a dying wife, an ill brother or sister. “Imagine that in the town you come from every family has someone who has cancer,” said Khalid Qassim Faleh, a local tribal leader. “This is the situation in Nahran Omar.”

The chemicals in the air — in Nahran Omar and other oil towns across southern Iraq — come from the smoky orange flames atop the oil wells, burning away the natural gas that bubbles up with the oil. Many countries have reduced the practice, known as flaring, in part because it wastes a precious resource. The amount of gas Iraq flares would be enough to power 3 million homes, according to the International Energy Agency. But flaring also produces chemicals that can pollute the air, land and water. It has been shown to worsen asthma and hypertension, contribute to the incidence of some cancers and speed climate change.

Iraq, however, still flares more than half the natural gas produced by its oil fields, more than any other country except Russia. The practice contributes to Iraq’s bizarre energy paradox: a country with some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves faces a chronic power shortage and frequent blackouts. To feed its gas-powered electricity plants during the long, hot summers, it has to import gas, which it buys primarily from Iran. “Iraq could be self-sufficient,” said Ali al-Saffar, the head of the Middle East and North Africa division of the Paris-based International Energy Agency. “Instead it’s in a league of its own: it is unique because it flares gas at the same time that it imports it.”

As Iraq’s economy craters under the twin assault of collapsing oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic, it can ill afford the several billion dollars a year it spends buying gas from Iran. The purchases also undercut U.S. sanctions on Iran aimed at preventing it from selling oil and gas. Iraqi officials acknowledge the need to reduce flaring but say that efforts to build expensive plants and pipelines to recapture gas from oil wells have been hindered by war and now by the dire economy. After the Islamic State seized a third of the country in 2014, the battle against it required every bit of government revenue for several years. In the past six months, crashing oil prices have deprived the government of its main source of revenue, and the coronavirus pandemic has shut down much of the economy. “So, OK, we respect people’s criticism,” said Iraq’s former oil minister, Thamer Ghadban. “But let them come here and try to operate oil and gas plants under these circumstances.”

For years, recapturing the gas was not a priority, given the country’s seemingly endless oil supply and, until recently, fat oil profits. But that is changing, officials say. After years of delays, Iraq opened a large recapture plant in Basra in 2018 at a cost of an estimated $1.5 billion, according to oil industry experts. But the plant is only a first step: it recovers a little more than half of the gas from three large oil fields. There are 15 oil fields in the province of Basra alone. The Oil Ministry announced plans last month to develop plants that would recover most of the gas that is now flared in southern Iraq. Ghadban said the projects would be operational in two to three years. International energy experts say that given Iraq’s economic troubles, those projections are wildly optimistic.

Flaming sky, flying into Basra at night looks like a descent into Dante’s inferno: spires of flame cast pools of orange light in the darkness. A sizzling city — summer temperatures regularly exceed 120 Fahrenheit — of nearly 3 million people in Iraq’s southeastern corner, Basra and the surrounding province hold 60% of Iraq’s proven oil reserves. But it was not the temperature that startled listeners of a morning weather forecast last August. “We are sounding the alarm,” the weatherman said in what has become a familiar refrain. “Today there are poisonous gases in the skies of southern Iraq that can harm people. The poisonous gases are a result of oil and car exhaust.”

Gas flaring is not the only cause of pollution in the oil-rich southeast. Petrochemical plants, aging sewage plants, uranium from degrading weapons and matériel from recent wars all contribute to what Shukri Hassan, a professor of environment at the University of Basra, calls “a cocktail of pollutants.” Bright nights and oil rain

An hour outside of Basra, the village of Nahran Omar offers a glimpse of the special hell of life amid an oil field. The village, population about 1,500, comprises three hamlets along the banks of the Tigris River as it widens out before emptying into the Persian Gulf. The government found oil and built the first well there in the 1960s. Today five wells dominate the eastern end of the village. The wells pump out a mix of oil, water and gas, primarily methane. The oil is channeled into tanks and pipelines to the port at Um Qasr. The oil-tainted water drains into a pond on the village’s outskirts, killing any life there. Nothing lives in the water, no grasses or plants grow nearby, even the desert birds avoid perching too close to it. Flaring is just a cheap way to get rid of the methane, which would otherwise be an explosive hazard. Many oil-producing countries, including the United States, flare gas, but rarely close to homes.

In Nahran Omar, the flares roar day and night, kicking out so much heat that the faces of people who live nearby look permanently sunburned. The leaves of nearby trees curl brown on the sides that face the flares. Children born in Nahran Omar in the past decade have never known silence nor seen a dark night sky because the flares cast an unending, brilliant light over the surrounding landscape. “We cannot breathe here,” said Beshir Aude el-Jabber, the village mukhtar or community leader. “If you want to breathe, you have to drive away from our village. For the children it is especially hard; their lungs are small. For the old people too, it is hard because their lungs are weak.”

The flares produce what the locals call oil rain, an oily precipitate made from the amalgam of water and hydrocarbons that do not completely burn during flaring and which, as it cools, absorbs water in the humid atmosphere. The breezes off the nearby Tigris carry the brew to nearby houses. “The oil rain from the flares destroyed our gardens, and we cannot plant anymore,” el-Jabber said. “Sometimes when we get up early in the morning we see the oil rain on our clothes that were hanging out to dry for the night and our cars are spotted with it.”

Oil is splattered on the corrugated metal roofs like pointillist paintings. The only way to remove it is with diesel fuel, el-Jabber said.

 

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