The Fuse

How One Power Plant Reveals the Risks of Using Iraqi Fuel Oil in Lebanon

by Noam Raydan | February 03, 2021

About 18 kilometers north of Beirut, the site of a deadly explosion that killed more than 190 people and injured over 6000 last summer, lies an aging thermal power facility that has served beyond its design lifespan. Although it should have been decommissioned by now, the heavy fuel oil (HFO)-powered Zouk power plant and its infamous white and red striped smokestacks remain standing, despite its low efficiency and high operating costs.

For more than a decade, Lebanese officials have had various opportunities to steer away from environmentally harmful energy sources and switch to natural gas. But the plans never got off the drawing board. Having failed to shift to safer fuel sources and reduce polluting facilities, the Lebanese government has pressed on instead with ad hoc policies, and recently has been considering Iraqi fuel oil amid a ravaging financial crisis. However, to persist in purchasing cheap residual fuel oil—which is high in sulfur content—for power generation, implies a continuation of the Lebanese state’s crippling approach to an electricity sector plagued by mismanagement since the early 1990s.

Approving and Flouting Laws

If Lebanon moves ahead with its plan to import high sulfur fuel oil (HSFO) from Iraq, it will be doing so in contravention of its own laws, including law 78/2018 passed by parliament on air quality protection. Such a move would serve as another indicator of the lax environmental regulations in a country where the government boasts it has a “multitude of laws, decrees and ministerial decisions that govern environment management.”

Iraqi fuel oil is characterized by a high sulfur content of around four percent. Residual fuel oil represents the bottom of the barrel that remains after crude oil is processed into valuable products. When it is burned at power plants located in residential areas, it releases toxic emissions such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), which would have an adverse impact on human health and the environment. Moreover, if these plants are still operating despite their dilapidated conditions, while being poorly maintained, the impact of this type of fuel oil would cause further deterioration. Such is the case with the Zouk power plant, which is among the world’s hotspots for the emission of SO2, according to a report published by Greenpeace in 2019. Various reports and local academic papers have demonstrated the damaging impact the plant has had on the environment, as well as on the health of the population in the Zouk Mikael town where it is located.

Commissioned in the early 1980s, one local report in 2018 called the plant’s two stacks “symbols of death” due to the hazardous air pollutants they have been emitting for decades in an area with a high population density. A rise in respiratory problems in Zouk Mikael has been blamed on the plant, and this situation has been going on since the early 1990s, based on two  reports published by local newspaper An Nahar in 1994 and 2018.

“It [the Zouk power plant] is dangerous because it releases high amounts of SO2 and high amounts of cancerous polycyclic hydrocarbons among many other chemicals,” says Dr. Najat Saliba, a professor of analytical chemistry at the American University of Beirut (AUB). “We have measured an amount of highly carcinogen Benzo[a]pyrene ten times more than what was measured in other places in Beirut.” Dr. Saliba has researched the role of the Zouk power plant in contributing to levels of environmental pollutants in the ambient atmosphere.


Satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. taken on November 16, 2020 showing the Zouk power planet and the dispersion of its emissions.

The satellite image above captured by Planet Labs Inc. on November 16, 2020 shows plumes of smoke billowing from the power plant in a densely populated area, and reaching surrounding regions such as the bay of Jounieh. According to Dr. Eoghan Darbyshire, a Researcher at the UK-based Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), the plume is visible “because of the particulate matter, or aerosols, and water vapour.” Particulate matter (PM) is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “This particulate matter will predominantly be sulphate aerosol, but because of the plumes’ grey colour we can also deduce that black carbon is likely to be present, indicative of incomplete combustion from dirty fuel. Also in the plume but not visible to us will be SO2, NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) and other gaseous pollutants,” explained Dr. Darbyshire.

Using the TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument (satellite instrument on board the Copernicus Sentinel-5 Precursor satellite), which measures concentrations of SO2, NO2 and CO (carbon monoxide) in the atmosphere, among others, Dr. Darbyshire noted that in both summer and winter pollutant levels increased in the vicinity of the Zouk power plant. However, he pointed out that “it is difficult to attribute this directly to the power plant given the proximity of other pollution sources, most notably the mosaic of emissions from Beirut which is upwind and suffers from poor air quality.” (see image below)

Ruinous Policies in the Electricity sector

The Zouk plant, along with the Jiyeh thermal power plant to the south of Beirut (as shown in the satellite image below) are among the  power facilities that run on heavy fuel oil, and both of them are overdue for decommissioning. Based on a generation plan in an updated policy published by the Ministry of Energy and Water  in 2019, the two plants were supposed to be withdrawn from service starting in 2020. This has yet to happen.


Satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. taken on August 17, 2020 showing the emissions of the Jiyeh power plant.

The government’s attempt to run aging power plants such as Zouk on cut-rate fuel oil, as part of its stopgap solutions, will consequently lead to more particulate emissions. Additionally, the use of this type of fuel for a long period will inflict further damage on aging equipment.

“The excessive use of fuel oil with a high percentage of sulfur would damage the engines’ internal and injection parts, in addition to the boilers in a power plant,” explained Yahya Mawloud, Chief Operations Officer at the Middle East Power, the company operating two new power units (reciprocating engines) at Zouk (194MW) and Jiyeh (76MW) which came online in 2017. Similar views were echoed by Harry Istepanian, a chartered engineer with extensive experience in large-scale power: “Sulfur is corrosive. It reduces the lifespan of equipment and increases maintenance costs.”

Mawloud emphasized that his company will reject “any future shipment from Iraq (or from anywhere) if upon testing it turned out to be unsuitable or not compliant for the engines at the new power plants.” In January 2019, a fuel oil shipment damaged the engines at the new Zouk power unit. “The fuel treatment system at the Zouk power plant is different from the fuel they [the Lebanese government] procured,” he explained.

Problems with the specifications of imported fuel oil and refined products were revealed during court hearings over the case of a tainted fuel shipment that was uncovered last year in Lebanon. Statements made at the court were published by local media outlets. A number of laboratory technicians admitted they had falsified test reports of fuel specifications (such as sulfur content and viscosity) to make the imported shipments appear compliant with standards. In return, murky intermediaries showered them with gifts and money. Based on what some employees disclosed, falsifying fuel reports had been an ongoing practice for over two decades.

The technicians’ statements imply that it is unclear what type of fuel oil is being used in Lebanon due to the unreliability of the laboratory reports. With respect to the sulfur content, the Energy and Water Ministry has previously said that the sulfur content of the fuel oil used at its power plants and two rented power barges is 1 percent. Sulfur content and viscosity are the two most important characteristics of fuel oil, as commodities trader Morgan Downey notes in his book Oil 101.

In a report published in 2008, the World Bank laid out some measures Lebanon could have taken to reduce expenditures in the power sector, and those included a revision of fuel specifications, along with an analysis of its consequences on the environment and human health. According to the report, a revision of the fuel specification on heavy fuel oil from 1 percent to 3.5 percent sulfur content could have brought “annual savings of close to US$12 million by 2008.” Moreover, the report noted back then that the 1 percent sulfur content required on heavy fuel oil for power plants seemed “inordinately restrictive and has limited supplier markets thus making it more expensive.”

Power Sector Relegated to the Bottom of the Barrel

Recent talks of importing fuel oil from Iraq came a few months after the Lebanese Ministry of Energy and Water had said that overland gasoil shipments from Baghdad–offered as humanitarian aid following the blast in the port of Beirut last summer– could not be used at its power plants because of quality issues. Iraqi gas oil contains high levels of sulfur (1.5-2.5 percent), and is known for its low quality due to the  configuration of Iraqi refineries. If quality issues prevented Lebanon from using the Iraqi gas oil volumes, how will the Lebanese government then use Iraqi HSFO for power generation knowing that its sulfur content is very high? The government appeared to have some solutions. But they were either uneconomical or technically unfeasible.

According to a summary of a meeting that took place between a Lebanese delegation and Iraqi officials in Baghdad in December 2020 to discuss fuel oil imports, and which was published by local Al Akhbar newspaper on January 6, one suggestion was to import the Iraqi fuel oil and “treat it” at the inoperable and discarded Zahrani refinery which was completely shut down in 1989 due to the civil war (1975-1990). Below is a satellite image taken by Planet Labs Inc. on November 3, 2020, showing the rust-covered refinery.


Satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. taken on November 3, 2020 showing the inoperable Zahrani refinery in southern Lebanon

Samir Madani, a co-founder of TankerTrackers.com, an independent firm that tracks crude oil shipment and storage, confirmed the installation is showing excessive rust damage, noting that rust contaminates oil. Therefore, the refinery (that used to produce around 17,000 bpd) is simply out of commission and beyond repair.

Iraq produces a surplus of high sulfur fuel oil due to the configuration of its refineries. This challenge grew further with the introduction on January 1, 2020 of IMO 2020, a global regulation limiting the sulfur content of fuel oil used in ships from 3.50 percent to 0.50  percent. Lebanon, in its turn, does not have any refining capacity, and is completely dependent on fuel oil and oil products imports.

Shipping data from Kpler, a data intelligence firm, shows that Lebanon imported an average of 26,000 bpd of dirty petroleum products (fuel oil) in 2020, a drop from 35,000 bpd the previous year. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s annual imports of clean petroleum products have remained flat between 2019 and 2020, standing at 124,000 bpd, according to Kpler.

Towards the end of 2020, some government officials and local reports warned of imminent and more severe power outages in Lebanon as two contracts for importing oil products and fuel oil were about to expire. Those included a controversial contract signed in 2005 between the Algerian national state-owned oil company Sonatrach and the Lebanese government, and another one inked the same year with the Kuwait Petroleum Company. Oil tankers are still heading to Lebanon, shipping data shows.

Among the most recent vessels that have called on Lebanon was Ariel (IMO 9252955), which left Kuwait’s Mina Abdullah in early January laden with 210,000 barrels of gasoil, according to Kpler’s data. The tanker arrived at the Zahrani terminal in southern Lebanon on January 23, according to MarineTraffic.

Fixing the electricity sector remains an unattainable goal for Lebanon, as the country continues to be ravaged by a financial crisis and a pandemic that’s showing no signs of abating. The lack of a robust government only makes the situation worse, and the Lebanese delegation’s visit to Baghdad last December pointed to this state of affairs. Importing low quality fuel oil to be used for power generation at a dilapidated power plant operating beyond its lifespan, such as the Zouk facility, is an indicator that the current authority is unable to pull the country from the bottom of the barrel.

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