Oil Thieves Make Off With 10M Tons a Year

Itar-TassTransnefteprodukt says that it is pumping cash because oil is such a liquid good.
Using blowtorches, rubber tubing and cisterns as the tools of their trade, Russia's oil thieves cost the industry millions of dollars as they feed off the arteries of the national pipeline system.

About 10 million tons of crude and oil products are siphoned from pipelines, stolen en route to storage tanks and looted from filling stations each year, according to statistics the Interior Ministry made public Tuesday.

"We're pumping hard cash here," said Konstantin Shein, vice president of state-owned oil product pipeline Transnefteprodukt. "Oil is a very liquid good."

Transnefteprodukt stretches 22,000 kilometers across Russia and into several countries of the former Soviet Union. The company's new management has discovered that a team of about 2,000 security guards nationwide isn't enough to defend the system against perpetrators, many of whom belong to organized crime groups, said Leonid Firyan, head of Transnefteprodukt's security service.

The company wants to shift its security operations away from lone patrols, each responsible for 10 kilometers of buried pipeline, to rapid-response teams of specialists who react to changes in pipeline pressure.

The new system, however, will probably not deter criminals, many of whom live in impoverished areas and regard the local pipeline segment as their last hope for income.

While the rate of gasoline theft has plunged since the oil deficits of the early 1990s, the Moscow region has seen an uptick of unsanctioned cuts into the system. Twenty-three instances have so far been reported in the first half of this year, compared to seven in all of 2001 and 14 in 2000.

The situation is worse in Chechnya than in other parts of the country. About 200 tons of crude and oil products a day are pilfered from pipelines that traverse the war-torn republic.

Interior Ministry officials admit that they are incapable of finding and prosecuting those responsible for a majority of the crimes committed.

"We are dealing with true professionals here," said Major General Boris Gavrilov, deputy head of the Interior Ministry's investigative committee.

Federal laws aren't much help either, Gavrilov added. Ministry officials are frustrated by courts, which across the country hand down radically different sentences for similar crimes. For the past 10 years, they have lobbied the State Duma to pass a federal law on pipeline transport that would require jail time as punishment.