THE dangerous crime of stealing oil from high-pressure pipelines, usually associated with Nigeria, Iraq and the former eastern bloc countries, has started to take hold in Britain. The risks to people and the environment are great, and the outbreak casts a cloud over the government’s plan to flog off the large network of oil pipes it still owns.
At 6,600 miles, Britain has more underground oil pipelines than any other European country. The most vulnerable are the cross-country pipes carrying petrol, diesel and aviation fuel from large coastal refineries to depots in towns, major airports and military airfields. Typically buried 6-8 feet under farm land, the usual means of monitoring them for leaks is a visual inspection from an occasional helicopter flight along the length of the pipe.
Metering on big pipelines is surprisingly inaccurate and so this scale of losses to theft can go undetected. Taking even an undetectably small amount of the vast quantities in transit, however, is still highly lucrative for the gangs involved.
A sophisticated trick
They dig down and insert a tap into the pipe – a sophisticated trick – and run the oil for several hundred yards to a hidden 1,000-litre plastic tank, through polythene piping buried just a few inches below the surface. A van comes periodically to take the stolen oil away. This is incredibly hazardous, and although no explosion has yet been recorded, serious pollution has occurred in Wiltshire when a farmer’s plough severed the thieves’ improvised piping.
The authorities and oil companies are understandably reticent on the subject. Only two such incidents have been publicly reported, both in 2014 (in Wiltshire, and another near the foreign secretary’s official residence at Chevening in Kent), but the Eye understands there have been at least seven.
In the Wiltshire incident a Hampshire Police spokesman said two men “from the Salisbury area” were in custody after they were caught collecting the oil, and their stash was found in a warehouse. What wasn’t mentioned was that the “Salisbury men” were Latvian. There is a long tradition of such pipeline thefts by well-organised gangs in eastern European countries, some of whom now seem to be targeting this country.
Penny-pinching on maintenance
Three-quarters of the UK pipelines are owned by major oil companies, who are belatedly deploying hi-tech means to detect unauthorised siphoning of the pipes. However, more than 1,500 miles are owned by the highly-strategic Government Pipeline and Storage System (GPSS) that the coalition is trying to flog off for a quick buck. In Eyes 1360 and 1368 we highlighted the parlous state of much of the GPSS following penny-pinching on maintenance since 2010. Routes of GPSS pipes can readily be found in the public domain, and the GPSS has far fewer resources than the oil companies to protect the system, making it a soft target. Whether the government can, as it hoped, sell the GPSS before the election, remains to be seen. This new vulnerability won’t help.