The decision of the United States to stop the importation of Nigeria’s light blend of crude oil due to the shale oil boom has exposed the US refineries to the dangers associated with the processing of lighter shale oil.

As a result of the increased domestic production of shale oil, the US has slashed crude  oil imports from a peak of almost 14 million barrels per day in 2006, to slightly above 7 million barrels per day.
Crude oil import from Nigeria, one of the principal sources of light crude, was also slashed from more than 1 million barrels per day in 2010 to zero in July 2014.

But the US refineries, Reuters has reported, are designed to handle medium blend crude as against the much lighter shale oil being produced in the country to replace imports from Nigeria and others.
US refiners are said to have shown a strong preference for a medium blend, but almost all the oil being produced as a result of the shale boom is much lighter than the refineries can handle.

Reuters reported that while imports of medium-heavy and heavy grades of crude oil (with specific gravity of less than 30 degrees) have remained roughly constant at 4.5 to 5 million barrels per day since 2007, imports of medium-light and light oils have dropped from 6 million barrels per day to just over 2 million.
Imports of the lightest grades of oil, the closest substitutes for domestic shale production, have been reduced from 2.5 million barrels in 2007 per day to just 500,000 in the first seven months of 2014, according to US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The sudden change in the grades of crude oil processed by the refineries were said to have threatened the capacity of the plants to blend the different grades to derive the required quality of refined products.

The refineries are said to be conscious of the quality and density of crude oil as “crude varies considerably in terms of density, acidity, type of hydrocarbon molecules they contain, and presence of impurities such as sulphur and heavy metals such as nickel and vanadium.”

For instance, if the crude oil contains too much acid or salt, the refinery’s equipment will be damaged by corrosion, while with too many heavy metals, the catalysts that aid refining will be poisoned.

On the other hand, too much sulphur will make the crude too hard to meet specifications for petroleum products.

Also, if the crude oil is of the wrong density, it will be impossible to maximise the efficiency of the refinery’s distillation tower and other units.

The average density of crude oil processed in the US refineries since 1985 has been fairly steady and in statistical terms, the weighted average specific gravity has been 31.1 degrees with a standard deviation of just 0.7 degrees.

But according to EIA’s US crude oil production forecast, analysis of crude oil types released in May 2014, “roughly 96 percent of the 1.8 million barrels per day growth in (domestic) production between 2011 and 2013 consisted of grades with American Petroleum Institute (API) gravity of 40 or above.”

To handle the lighter shale oil, the US refiners need to reconfigure their plants to handle a lighter average blend, but that would take time and involves costly investment.

The simpler option, it was learnt, would be to lift the ban on crude oil exports and allow US refiners to continue to import and refine more of the heavier oil they prefer.

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“as long as the oil companies continue to refuse to meter their oil wells, the nation would be in the dark on the actual quantity of crude they pump daily”.

The Nigerian government produces over 4 million barrels of crude oil daily, an environmental activist said, disputing the official figures by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC.

Godwin Ojo, the Executive Director of the Environmental Rights Action / Friends of the Earth Nigeria, ERA/FoEN, told journalists over the weekend, in Lagos that the lack of transparency and accountability in the oil sector is responsible for the massive corruption in the industry.

“We believe that the core issue affecting the oil and gas industry is the failure and, or refusal of operators in the industry and regulatory bodies to publicly disclose or engage easily available
scientific templates for precise measurement of the production process,” said Mr. Ojo.

‘Breakdown of production’

Nigeria produces a maximum of 2.5 million barrels of crude oil daily, according to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC.

Mr. Ojo, whose organization launched the ‘Publish What You Pump’ campaign last year, said that as long as the oil companies continue to refuse to meter their oil wells, the nation would be in the dark on
the actual quantity of crude they pump daily.

“The oil companies and agencies are afraid of metering,” said Mr. Ojo.

On how he arrived at the figure of 4 million barrels per day, the environmentalist stated that in addition to the 2.5 million barrel daily production, between 400,000 and 600,000 barrels are lost daily
to oil theft.

“Artisanal refining represents only 20 percent of total thefts in Nigeria because you hear of barges and ships taken away,” Mr. Ojo said.

“There are over 10,000 oil spill sites in the Niger Delta and not one of these is cleaned up. One of these spills is about the size of the Exxon Valdez spill which is about 500,000 barrels.

“There is a much more sinister oil theft going on in the high seas,” he added.

Mr. Ojo further urged the media to reflect the new issues emerging in the area of oil theft.

“Oil theft has assumed a bigger dimension and the community folks still get the blame. Nigerians must know the actual volumes that are spilled and those stolen in the high seas,” Mr. Ojo said.

“More oil companies are going offshore yet the pollutions are not going to reduce but will not be very visible onshore until we start seeing dead fish on our shores as the case in recent times.

“The Bonga spill in December 2011 was an eye opener to us all on how pollutions in the high seas cannot be easily monitored by the relevant agencies of government that rely on figures peddled by the polluters,” he added.

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Politicians and military leaders — not militants — are responsible for the majority of oil thefts in Nigeria’s crude-rich southern delta, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable quoting a Nigerian official and released by WikiLeaks.

A member of a government panel on troubles in the Niger Delta implicated Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, a general whose brother became president, and former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar as being the biggest forces behind the thefts, the cable claims.

“It is in the interests of these people to make it appear that the Niger Delta problem is intractable,” the Jan. 2009 cable quotes panel member Tony Uranta as saying. “As a result, they prop up the militants, including some who have an ideological basis for their actions.”

Atiku has however denied the allegations, describing it as “a recycled old tale told again and again by business rivals unable to match his business success.”

A statement issued to The Associated Press yesterday read: “Atiku is unaware of any links that the late General Yar’Adua had with bunkering and he believed absolutely that this is false accusation.”

Yar’Adua, who served as second-in-command of the country’s military government in the late 1970s, died in prison in 1997 after being arrested for criticizing military dictator Sani Abacha. His brother, the President Umaru Yar’Adua, died in May 2010.

The diplomatic cable quotes Uranta as blaming “no more than 15 per cent” of oil thefts on militants operating in the delta, a tropical maze of creeks and waterways about the size of South Carolina. Instead, politicians, retired admirals and generals and others in the country’s elite profit from the thefts.

“Uranta claimed that the late Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, the president’s brother, had been the ‘biggest’ bunkerer,” the cable reads, using the local term for oil thieves. “When he died, his holdings were taken over by his brothers but managed on their behalf by his close personal friend, former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar.”

“The military wants to remain in the Niger Delta because they profit enormously from money charged for escorting illegally bunkered crude and from money extorted in the name of providing security on the roads,” the cable reads. “The ... foot soldiers are not the only ones who profit; the commissioner of police, the director of the State Security Service (and) the military all line up at the governor’s door asking for ‘favours,’ Kemedi said.”

The cables also suggested militants received foreign military training and that the Israeli military equipped and trained some government soldiers.

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