Environmental Impacts of Iraq's Oil and Gas Industry

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Gas Flaring

As of 2011, the only countries to "flare" more natural gas than Iraq are Russia, Iran and Nigeria.[1]

Main article: Natural Gas Flaring in Iraq

Water and Marshlands

The process of oil extraction requires vast quantities of water, often more than the volume of oil produced. In the past, oil companies in the south of Iraq have primarily relied on the Tigris river for water supply, however Iraqi government officials have predicted that southern Iraq will face a major water crisis in 15-20 years if things continue as they are.[2]

In particular tensions between Turkey and Iraq have arisen over the impact of Turkey's US $32 billion[3] Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP) on Iraq's water resources, an infrastructure project launched in 1975 and involving the construction of 22 dams across the Euphrates and Tigris basins. Turkey in the past has resisted reaching an agreement with both Iraq and Syria, fellow "owners" of the water from these rivers, with former president Turgut Ozal saying that "we don’t tell Arabs what to do with their oil, so we don’taccept any suggestion from them about what to do with our water."[4] According to Venkata Vemuri of pressure group One Water, for the neighbours of Turkey and Iraq the immediate concern is that differences over water could disrupt the flow of oil.[5]

The NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq also reports concerns around the ultimate destination of the large quantities of water used after oil extraction. This water is often contaminated during extraction with toxic byproducts and released into the ground, from where acids, carcinogens and other toxins can enter the ecosystem and major health risks such as cancer. Those working in the oil industry and exposed to these toxins are at particular risk.[6] A 2007 Report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) states that 'oil industry sites.... are undoubtedly a major source of contamination and hazardous waste.'[7]

The same UNEP report addresses the alluvial plains in the south-east corner of the country, which constitute approximately 30 percent of Iraqi territory and are formed by the combined deltas of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The region begins north of Baghdad and extends to the Persian Gulf.[8] This region, known as the Mesopotamian marshlands, is home to local tribes who live above some of the richest oil reserves in Iraq. During Saddam Hussein's rule over the country, the marshes were dammed and drained when Hussein accused the Marsh Arabs of treason during the 1980-88 war with Iran.[9] The ecosystem forms part of the Tigris and Euphrates river basin, which feed Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. However the heart of the wetlands lies in southern Iraq, along the border with Iran and near big cities like Basra.[10] According to a 2011 UN White Paper, The future of the marshlands "depends on how successfully Iraq is able to strike a balance between national development, including the development of the oil industry infrastructure in the Marshlands area, and environmental conservation." The central government initiated planning for the long term development of the marshlands between 2005 and 2006, however the influence of the oil industry is cited by the United Nations Integrated Water Task Force for Iraq as being one of the challenges in developing a single strategic plan for the area.[11]

Oil Transportation and Spills

The transportation of oil may also entail environmental risks, with leaks or major oil spills endangering parts of the Gulf, part of a fragile ecosystem. In the south where the water table is just a few feet below the ground, oil from damaged pipelines also seeps into water supplies used for agriculture and drinking water.[12]

Iraq's oil infrastructure has also come under attack frequently since 2003. The Institute for the Analysis of Global Security think-tank counts at least 469 significant attacks on Iraqi oil infrastructure between when exports resumed in June 2003 and March 2008.[13] According to the BBC, the vast majority of attacks on the oil industry were blamed on insurgents bent on destabilising Iraq.[14]

Aside from sabotage, some ruptures have been linked to maintenance issues along pipelines. In particular, in late October 2011 a pipeline which runs south from West Qurna past the Rumaila oil field to the Fao port suffered an oil spill, following a rupture in a pipe scheduled to be replaced by Chinese CNPC. The spill was termed a "disaster" by deputy environment minister Kamal Latif, as it endangered Basra's only source of fresh water and contaminated a 22 kilometre stretch of the Bada's channel, which feeds the only water purification facility serving the city of Basra. According to Iraq Oil Report, the incident was seen as an accident rather than an act of sabotage and an official from the Oil Police admitted that poor maintenance was to blame for the pipeline rupture in North Rumalia.[15]

Iraqi Environmental Regulation

Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and subsequent upheaval, the operations of environmental authorities in Iraq were severely curtailed, with many laboratories in Baghdad looted following the conflict. According to a UNEP Report, the need to rebuild Iraq's environmental monitoring capacity was urgent.[16]

2005 Constitution

The 2005 Constitution of the Republic of Iraq demands shared responsibility for environmental regulation between the federal authorities and the producing administrative regions in management of oil and gas. However, the federal government remains the decision maker on certain matters, including generating policies relating to water sources from outside Iraq.[17]

Environmental Laws of 1997 and 2008

Law No. 3 of 1997 covered soil, air quality and water resources and formed the framework for the protection of the environment in Iraq until being subsumed into the 2008 and 2009 Environmental laws. The goal of the 1997 Law is to "protect the environment and to make it better including the territorial waters, from pollution and to extenuate its effects on health, environment and natural resources.”

The subsequent Law No. 37 of 2008 strengthens the 1997 Environmental Law, and created a formal Ministry of Environment. This Ministry executes formal ministerial instructions and orders, creates environmental policy and initiates compliance and deterrence mechanisms.[18]

Environmental Law under Bid Rounds

The technical service contracts (TSCs) signed in the first bid rounds in 2009 required contractors and operators to conduct petroleum operations with due regard to the protection of the environment and to the conservation of natural resource, adopting 'best international petroleum industry practices'.

However, the definition of 'best practices' is somewhat ambiguous. According to Iraq Oil Report, an international oil company (IOC) may well already apply the highest standards, as a result of its own corporate policies or those of its financiers, however the TSCs would seemingly allow lower standards generally accepted as 'good practice'.[19]

2009 Environmental Law

The 2009 Environmental Law expanded the jurisdiction and enforcement powers of the Ministry of Environment and introduced the concept of environmental impact assessments (EIAs), which should be submitted to the Ministry and approved before work may begin. The assessment should include the following elements:

  • positive and negative impacts of the project on the environment.
  • means to prevent and address the causes of pollution in order to comply with regulations.
  • contingencies for pollution emergencies and precautions.
  • possible alternative to the use of technology less harmful to the environment.
  • provisions to reduce waste.

The 2009 Law also establishes penalties for non-compliance and environmental pollution, such as closure of operations for defined periods and fines of up to $850 a month until the non-compliant factor is removed. If not remedied, the authorities can resort to imprisonment and further fines.[20]

International Treaty Obligations

Aside from internal regulation, Iraq has also signed up to a number of environmental conventions and agreements, including; the Basel Convention (2009); the Convention on Desertification (2007); the Climate Change Convention and Kyoto Protocol (2008); the UNESCO Convention (2008); and Convention for Biological Diversity (2008).[21]

However according to corporate attorney Thomas Donovan, Iraq has traditionally lagged behind international standards and has only recently signed up to many conventions, the provisions of which had not yet been implemented into Iraqi law as of 2011.[22]

References

  1. Shell signs £11bn deal to fuel Iraq's power stations with gas”. Guardian, 27 November 2011.
  2. Iraq may suffer clean water crisis in 15-20 years”. Reuters, 21 September 2011.
  3. Middle East- Turkey and Iraq, Partners in So Many Ways”. One Water, retrieved 3 December 2012.
  4. “Jongerden, Joost, Dams and Politics in Turkey: Utilizing Water, Developing Conflict”, 2010.
  5. Middle East- Turkey and Iraq, Partners in So Many Ways”. One Water, retrieved 3 December 2012.
  6. Iraqis and NGOs Consider Future Engagement with International Oil Companies”. NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq, retrieved 7 December 2011.
  7. UNEP in Iraq: Post-conflict Assessment, Clean-up and Reconstruction”. UNEP, December 2007.
  8. UNEP in Iraq: Post-conflict Assessment, Clean-up and Reconstruction”. UNEP, December 2007.
  9. Iraqi Tribal Disputes Pose New Challenge to Oil Firms”. Iraq Energy News, 31 May 2011.
  10. Eden in the Line of Fire”. Tierra America, retrieved 7 December 2011.
  11. Managing Change in the Marshlands:Iraq’s Critical Challenge”. United Nations, 2011.
  12. Oil attacks target Iraq recovery”. BBC News, 16 June 2004.
  13. Iraq Pipeline Watch ”. IAGS, retrieved 8 December 2011.
  14. Oil attacks target Iraq recovery”. BBC News, 16 June 2004.
  15. Oil pipeline leak threatening Basra water supply”. Iraq Oil Report, 3 November 2011.
  16. UNEP in Iraq: Post-conflict Assessment, Clean-up and Reconstruction”. UNEP, December 2007.
  17. Analysis: Iraqi legal regime protects environment”. Iraq Oil Report, 31 January 2011.
  18. Analysis: Iraqi legal regime protects environment”. Iraq Oil Report, 31 January 2011.
  19. Analysis: Iraqi legal regime protects environment”. Iraq Oil Report, 31 January 2011.
  20. Analysis: Iraqi legal regime protects environment”. Iraq Oil Report, 31 January 2011.
  21. Analysis: Iraqi legal regime protects environmentIraq Oil Report, 31 January 2011.
  22. Analysis: Iraqi legal regime protects environmentIraq Oil Report, 31 January 2011.