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Illegal taps plaguing Colombian oil pipelines

10 Jul 2017 21:45 (+01:00 GMT)
Illegal taps plaguing Colombian oil pipelines

Bogota, 10 July (Argus) — Illegal valves installed on Colombian Ecopetrol's main eastern oil pipeline have now become more of a menace than rebel bombings for the state-controlled oil producer.

Chronic tapping blamed on criminal organizations has kept Ecopetrol's 220,000 b/d Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline out of operation since 6 June, when the first tap was detected, the company told Argus today.

The company reports 24 illegal taps so far this year.

The process of detecting and plugging the taps, coupled with repairing ruptures from rebel bombings, translates into a total of 91 days of outages for the Caño Limón-Coveñas line in the year to date through 11 July.

In January-July last year, the line was down for a total of 51 days.

Ecopetrol transports crude from US Occidental's 50,000 b/d Caño Limón oil complex in Arauca province to Coveñas port through the 770km (478mi) above-ground pipeline.

When the Caño Limón-Banadía leg is free of illegal taps and fully operational, Ecopetrol can revert to the bi-directional 120,000 b/d Bicentenario pipeline as a contingency.

But that alternative route via Bicentenario to the Coveñas-bound Ocensa pipeline system entails higher costs for producers.

Pipeline bombings, a mainstay of the Colombian oil industry for decades, have declined significantly since the government started a peace campaign in 2012.

Colombia's main rebel group Farc on 25 June gave up around 7,000 weapons, a milestone in a process to demobilize and reintegrate an equivalent number of fighters into civil society.

But not all Farc members are laying down arms. A dissident group led by alias ‘Ivan Mordisco' in Guaviare province continues to clash with Colombia's military. A weekend incident left several soldiers injured in San Jose del Guaviare, on the southern edge of the Llanos oil region.

Security analysts estimate the dissident group to have about 300 fighters.

The 1,500-fighter ELN continues to target oil infrastructure and clash with armed forces even as the organization's negotiators search for a separate peace deal with the Colombian government in Quito, Ecuador. The two sides are in discussions over ceasefire terms.

Despite peace efforts with the country's two anti-government rebel groups, security analysts believe the existence of drug-trafficking groups create incentives for stealing crude, which is used in the process of turning coca leaves into cocaine.