The Giant Soviet Pipeline System That’s Full of Tainted Crude

oil tanker loading
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By Julian Lee (Bloomberg) — Russia’s giant Soviet-era oil pipeline is a vital piece of Europe’s energy infrastructure, carrying crude to refineries across the region. This week it’s been hit by probably the biggest crisis in its 55-year history: both branches of the Druzhba pipeline have been closed due to the presence of contaminated crude oil that can cause serious damage to refineries.

What is the Druzhba pipeline?

The Druzhba, or Friendship, pipeline system is a Soviet-era behemoth, originally designed to carry crude from the USSR to allied countries in eastern Europe. The line starts at Almetyevsk in the Republic of Tatarstan, a town that was founded in 1953 as an oil-processing center for the giant Romashkino oil field, then the mainstay of the Soviet oil industry. It’s now also a major pipeline junction, where conduits from the Volga-Urals region, West Siberia and the Caspian Sea meet.

The Druzhba pipeline carries oil westwards to Mozyr in Belarus, where it splits into two branches. One continues westwards across Poland and into Germany. It delivers crude to refineries at Plock and Gdansk in Poland and Schwedt and Leuna in Germany. A southern branch crosses Ukraine to Uzhgorod on the border with the Slovak Republic, where it again splits. One leg delivers crude to the Szazhalombatta refinery near Budapest in Hungary. The other supplies refineries in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The total length of the line, including all its branches, is around 5,500 kilometers (3,420 miles).

Construction of the system began in 1960 and the line was put into operation in October 1964.

A spur line from Unecha in Russia that crossed Belarus to an export terminal on the Baltic Sea at Ventspils in Latvia was completed in 1968, but was closed in 2002 after Russia halted crude exports through Latvia, following the construction of its own Baltic export terminal at Primorsk. A new spur line from Unecha, bypassing Belarus to a second Russian Baltic export terminal at Ust-Luga, came into operation in March 2012.

The importance of Druzhba

Druzhba can carry between 1.2 million and 1.4 million barrels of crude a day, according to the International Association of Oil Transporters, with the possibility of boosting that to around 2 million barrels. It forms a vital source of supply for the refineries along its route in Poland, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

During 2018, the Druzhba network was used to deliver about 1 million barrels a day of Russian crude to those five countries, with a further 500,000 barrels a day pumped to Ust-Luga for export by sea.

While most of the refineries along its length can source at least some of their crude requirements via other routes, Druzhba has provided most of their feedstock and most were designed specifically to process the Russian Urals crude delivered through the pipeline.

The contamination

Europe’s oil refineries stopped accepting piped deliveries of Urals crude from Russia this week after flows were found to be contaminated with abnormally high levels of organic chlorides that, when refined, become hydrochloric acid that can damage the plants.

The issue was first raised by Belarus and has also affected supplies from the Russian port of Ust-Luga, according to a person familiar with the matter.

There are no signs that shipments from Novorossiysk or Primorsk, two other Russian tanker-loading facilities, have been disrupted.

Russia’s government has blamed a private storage terminal in the center of the country for the problem. It will now take two weeks to ensure uncontaminated crude is flowing along the entire length of the pipeline.

The millions of barrels tainted crude will need to blended with larger quantities of unblemished oil to get the impurities down to safe levels, a task that might some weeks or months.

Organic chlorides are generally not present in crude oils, but are used to dissolve wax and during cleaning operations at production sites, pipelines or tanks.

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P