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An Oil Mess in Myanmar

June 10, 2017

For those of us who are conservationists, environmentalists and just happen to be in the oil industry to fund these passions, there is an awful situation in Myanmar that was brought to the attention of the world by Adam Dean's article entitled Drilling for a Dream in Myanmar. It included his striking photography and was in a recent edition of The New York Times. However, first we need to review a bit of history of the oil industry in Burma which is now known as Myanmar.

Early British explorers found oil there in 1795 from hand-dug oil wells and exported the first barrel of crude oil in 1853. The London-based Burmah Oil Company was established in 1871. The Americans jumped in when Standard Oil Company, for whom the author worked as a young fellow, began operations there in 1901. Prior to the Japanese WWII invasion of Burma, some 18,000 barrels of oil per day were exported, largely from the oil field shown below. Today, the country's level of oil production has changed little though offshore natural gas production has kept the lights on in nearby Bangkok.

Below is an image of oil wells in the Yenangyuang oil field taken by the British in 1910.

If you think that looks like an environmental disaster, below is the image of the discovery well of Spindle Top Dome in Beaumont, Texas in 1901 that flowed out of control at a rate of 100,000 barrels per day for nine days and established the Texas oil boom. All of a sudden, the United States became the "Saudi Arabia equivalent" of that era.

Accordingly, tidiness, environmental issues and pristine developments were never the touchstone of the early oil industry.

However, Adam Dean has introduced us to a new low in a place called Nga Naung Mone, Myanmar. Some 3,000 people live in the village hamlet, having purchased land from farmers and drilling shallow wells with make-shift equipment.

Unlike oil workers in the offshore environment, the commute is quite easy as everyone lives within the confines of the depleting oil field.

Men, women and children work in this stifling tropical environment. In the oil industry this would be categorized as the smallest well bore ever seen with a most unusual artificial lift device.

Today, oil production averages some half a barrel per day per well which is stored in barrels for subsequent trucking to collection stations for sale.

An environmental plus is that oil spills represent money and are soaked up with rags with the oil squeezed into buckets which return $4.50 per bucket depending on OPEC spot oil prices.

Despite the acrid smell of oil which not everyone finds offensive, particularly if you are in the business, life goes on with the families in the cool of the evening. Bear in mind that apart from potential carcinogens in the oil, the American Indians used to drink it for digestive problems. On the other hand, many of them did not fare too well.

It is difficult to feel very optimistic about the future of elephant conservation in Myanmar given the past several commentaries on the state of affairs there. Moreover, the outlook for the people of the country is a bit spotty at best with private guerrilla armies, an ineffective government, a Buddhist faith that does not get the picture and a miserable economy. Nonetheless, after some fifty years of involvement with the place, the author would rather be dealing with the problems in Myanmar than many other parts of the world.

Yan Lipao Woven Boxes

 Yan Lipao is a type of vine that grows in the tropical forests of southern Thailand in Nakhonsithammarat. Tough yet flexible, it is ideal for coiling to make various items such as boxes and handbags. With natural colors of brown and black, intricate designs can be woven and depending on the details of the design, it it can take between ten days to a month to make an item.



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