Kazakhstan Field's Riches Come With a Price
Published: October 23, 2001 (Issue # 715)
The Tengiz field in Kazakhstan is considered one of the greatest petrochemical finds ever. But it is also one of the most challenging. As Christopher Pala reports, there's a lot more to extracting oil there than boring a hole in the ground - like dealing with 200-meter towers of fire and millions of tons of eye-burning sulfur.
TENGIZ, Kazakhstan - Viewed from an approaching helicopter, the enormous slabs of canary-yellow sulfur reflect the desert sun like flattened gold bars, dwarfing the shiny processing plants of the world's sixth-largest oil field set on the parched shores of the Caspian Sea.
There are 4.5 million tons of sulfur at Tengiz spread out on football-field-sized cakes that are 7.5 meters thick. And every day another 4,500 tons of liquid sulfur comes up with the oil and is sprayed with agricultural watering equipment out onto the yellow slabs, solidifying rapidly into a luminous, porous material that gives off hardly any odor at all. It has accumulated here in such huge quantities because of the simple fact that the cost of getting it to market is more than what people will pay for it: Sulfur is a commodity, used as fertilizer and in the chemical industry, that today is in abundant supply.
The giant slabs represent a testimony to the impressive amounts of oil that Tengiz has already produced, but they are also a huge challenge staring the Chevron executives who operate the Tengiz field in the face: How can one find a way to dispose of so much sulfur?
The oil field's other eye-catching features are the five flaring towers that, day in and day out, send plumes of smoky orange flames into the air. With all gas pipelines leading to Russia - a country awash in gas - building the facilities to break it down and sell to Russia is not an effort that makes any economical sense.
"It is impossible to find any serious excuse for flaring," wrote Kazakh oil expert Sagat Tugelbayev in a local oil journal recently, "because it is a waste of one of the most valuable raw material required for industrial and domestic needs."
Tugelbayev's statement is representative of the widely held view among the 15 million residents of this former Soviet central Asian republic, a country the size of Western Europe. As a result, the government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been saying publicly for years that Tengiz's gas must be utilized, not flared.
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