An Oil Pipeline for Peru
By “Awake!” correspondent in Peru
CAN you imagine what it would be like to be without oil or its products? There would be no gasoline-powered engines, no electricity from oil-powered generating plants, none of the many plastics that are manufactured from oil. Our life-styles and customs would have to change drastically, for the world’s modern economy is very dependent on oil.
Even now, many nations that lack oil resources of their own are being seriously troubled by current developments regarding oil reserves. In recent years scientists have begun warning that the world’s oil supply possibly could run out within 25 to 50 years. OPEC (Economic Council of Oil Producing Nations) boosted the price of crude oil to over $12 a barrel. Immediately the economic pinch could be felt in all the oil-importing nations. Especially hard hit are developing nations that have to import oil to fuel their economies.
Peru was among those nations that felt the effects of the oil price hike. Though for many years this republic on the western coast of South America had been self-sufficient in oil and even an exporter of it, by January of 1977 Peru was importing more than 50,000 barrels of oil a day to meet the country’s internal demands. Experts said that by 1980 Peru’s growing economy would require 180,000 barrels a day.
However, with daily production down to 65,000 barrels in Peru’s northern oil fields, this represented a grave problem for the development of the country. Valuable foreign exchange had to be channeled into paying for imported oil. What could be done to ensure Peru’s economic growth and at the same time supply the country’s oil needs?
In Search of New Supplies
Peru began searching for new oil supplies. It was known that there were large quantities of oil in the jungle area of the Amazon basin. These resources had been largely ignored due to their inaccessibility. But the changed situation of the 1970’s made them vital to the country’s well-being.
The oil reserves were located in the heart of a tropical rain forest, one of the most difficult areas on earth to reach. Further complicating matters, most of Peru’s population is found on the west coast, beyond the barrier of the Andes mountains. Could a pipeline be built to bring oil from a jungle area over mountains to the Pacific coast of Peru?
Feasibility studies were arranged by contract with a San Francisco company. During more than a year and at a cost of some 6,000,000 dollars, studies and planning of the route for a Trans-Andean pipeline went ahead. Early in 1975 construction got under way. Of course, a construction project of this scope required the cooperation and combined resources of many different firms. Some 7,000 workers were contracted, 5,000 of whom were Peruvians.
Now came the real challenge: to finish the pipeline as soon as possible. The government of Peru declared the project to be a national priority. But there were huge difficulties to face. How so?
Consider the size of the undertaking. Inquiries at PetroPeru, the national oil company in charge of development for all Peru’s oil resources, reveal that the North Peruvian Pipeline (Oleoducto Nor Peruano) is second only to the Alaskan pipeline in size. It is 852 kilometers (530 miles) long, with the first 304 kilometers (189 miles) in the jungle being made of pipe 61 centimeters (24 inches) in diameter. The rest of the pipeline has a diameter of 91 centimeters (36 inches). Three branches of varying length bring oil from scattered fields to the main pipeline. Its cost amounted to over $700,000,000.
Contributing to the difficulties of completing this project was the varied topography that the pipeline had to cross. Peru has four great geographical areas within its borders—selva, or jungle, montaña, or high jungle, the lofty Andes mountains, and a dry coastal desert plain. Each area differs greatly from the others as to terrain, altitude and climate.
Construction in the Jungle
The greatest construction hardships were encountered in the thick, overgrown, tropical jungle of the Amazon basin. Viewed from the air, this area looks like a solid green carpet. But under the matted vegetation are what Peruvians call aguajales. These are swamps devoid of solid ground. Pipeline workers had to fight their way through more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) of this covering mass of vegetation, which included many towering trees.
Workers forged ahead in the hot, humid climate that gets over 100 inches (254 centimeters) of rainfall each year. Engineers and technicians kept solving unforeseen difficulties with new methods of pipeline construction.
Work began at the pipeline’s eastern terminal, San José de Saramuro. That location served as a staging area for gathering materials brought by barge from the Atlantic Ocean some 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles) up the Amazon River to the inland port of Iquitos. From there 28 tugboats with 58 barges transported more than 100,000 tons of materials and construction equipment to crews building the pipeline. Four helicopters and two amphibious aircraft were in constant use for the delivery of emergency provisions and spare parts.
Much of the first 304 kilometers (189 miles) of pipe was laid in two sections under water, following the course of the Marañon River, a principal tributary of the Amazon. Here major problems arose. It was necessary to scoop out special channels for the pipe. Then welded sections were floated into position and submerged.
Workers housed on special barges had to wade into neck-deep muck in swamps where poisonous snakes and insects lurked. Although expert medical attention was always available, the cost in health and lives was high. Some workers contracted tropical diseases and had to be evacuated. Others suffered fatal accidents. Finishing these first two sections required more than a year.
Over Mountains and Desert
Meanwhile, an Argentinian company had set its construction crews to the task of extending the pipeline over the rugged Andes mountains. Happily, at a height of 2,145 meters (7,037 feet), the crossing point is at Porculla Pass, the lowest pass in the Peruvian Andes. Nevertheless, the obstacles were formidable. First, there was need to build a proper road. Then huge trailer trucks lugged sections of 91-centimeter (36-inch) pipe into position. Maneuvering these big vehicles up steep mountain roads, where the slightest miscalculation would send the truck plunging hundreds of feet into a chasm, required nerves of steel and excellent skills on the part of truck drivers. Moreover, instead of tropical jungle heat, workers now had to face the icy cold of mountain heights.
Once over the mountains and before reaching its maritime terminal at the port of Bayóvar, the pipeline crosses the Sechura Desert. This is one of the driest deserts in the world and offered its own special hazards. Vehicles equipped with big balloon tires pulled the pipe sections into place for welding. Special wooden forms had to be installed in the pipeline trench to prevent cave-ins due to dry desert sands. Shifting sands and relentless heat took their toll in both men and equipment.
A specialized microwave communication system was installed to monitor the pipeline. This modern device, which cost $90,000,000 (U.S.), controls the flow of oil. It immediately spots any leakage and in an instant shuts off the oil to prevent waste or ecological damage.
Because of the pipeline, Bayóvar, a small sleepy fishing village, will become a modern city with an expected population of 100,000. Huge storage tanks have been built to accommodate the daily arrival of 116,000 barrels of oil. Port facilities were constructed for the huge tankers that haul the oil off to refineries. The government of Peru plans for Bayóvar to become the industrial center of northern Peru. Eventually it will have an oil refinery, a petrochemical complex, phosphate mines, a fertilizer plant and a metallurgical industry.
What Effect on Peru’s Future?
The first oil from the jungle area arrived at Bayóvar on May 24, 1977. The 10 pumping stations had filled the pipeline with more than 3,000,000 barrels of oil. Peruvians were elated. The achievement caused much thought as to what effect this pipeline will have on Peru’s future.
Surely there will be benefits. Already some can be seen. New roads have reached great mountain and high jungle areas, giving once isolated natives better access to the large population centers along Peru’s western coast. There is no doubt that Peru, by becoming self-sufficient in oil, will greatly benefit economically.
However, unless great amounts of additional oil are found, the present jungle reserves are expected to last only until 1995. And before real benefits of this oil can be felt, large loans obtained for the pipeline project must be paid. Too, the final effects of the North Peruvian Pipeline and its oil depend largely on how this energy resource will be used. Only time will tell.