By Tarty Teh
Our petrochemical engineering academies are not exactly teeming with ambitious undergraduates eager to push the frontier of sources of industrial energy for a growing Liberia. But maybe if we build it, they will come: If we build the petroleum refinery, again.
That’s exactly what Mr. Harry Greaves wants to do. I understand that he has got the first seven million dollars toward that goal; but I don’t know how many more millions it will take to bring that about. Of course having an operating petroleum refinery is not the end of the story; it is most likely the beginning of the realization of the complexity of the undertaking.
For starters, if we had our own refinery, we would have to import the crude oil to feed the plant. And then we would have to pray that the thing didn’t break down. Even if the refinery could run on prayer or faith alone, we would be out of the woods only partially. We would be standing in some tall grass for want of some technical know-how, because Heaven mostly helps those who help themselves.
There are simpler machines we could endeavor to learn to understand and operate. We could learn to repair the engines of the fleet of public transport busses that donor countries continue to give us but which we cannot keep operational for lack of trained manpower for needed mechanical repairs.
This is just the gist of the complexity of running a refinery, and what I have just shown could be called a technical evaluation of the refinery proposal. But that too would be an oversimplification. Even so, our consumer base may not be large enough to satisfy the cost of running a refinery after feeding our ego on the fact of having one.
But let us suppose that both the need and know-how were sufficient to allow us to move to the final stage — owing and running a refinery. Here we would meet a challenge as old as Liberia itself — corruption. We are very corrupt. We are corrupt on all levels of our government and industry. So the chances of recovering the original investment would diminish with a longer list of things that could go wrong and would go wrong.
Of course corruption is old news in Liberia; but if we believe the experts, there is more of it now than ever before. I am not sure I know why. It could very well be that newly available free speech and the technological advances in propagating it have given the same or slightly higher amount of corruption more airing, which has created a compounding effect. Certainly, the effect is not the problem; corruption in any concentration is the problem.
The Liberia Petroleum Refining Company (LPRC) is not losing money — ever since we lost the actual petroleum refining plant in the mid 1960s. So, consistent with the theme of keeping it simple, we should let it stay that way a while longer while we figure out a way of migrating to a slightly more involved system. We have been buying finished petroleum products for a couple of decades now — and profitably so. If you don’t believe me, ask the Honorable Edwin Snowe and Mr. Harry Greaves. They are past and present Managing Directors of LPRC.
You could say that the current setup — a refining company without a refinery — is fool proof. That is, a fool could run it without running into difficulty. Theft proofing it is another matter. There are probably more thieves than fools in Liberia. And thieves, by nature, are more opportunistic than fools. Having one or the other is bad enough; having both is crippling.
Whether it happened by fluke or by design, our net industrial output dropped to meet our level of incompetence. Now anybody can run the LPRC and post an annual profit even after the mandatory graft that is the staple of managing the company. Now we are about the re-complicate all that with a complex machine we once had that consumed more money than it made. And it can catch fire too. That reminds me.
The last time there was a fire at LPRC, there wasn’t a functioning fire truck to fight the blaze. In a front-page story the Reality newspaper (one of the local papers) said that the LPRC employees bravely beat the fire with green tree branches. But if a refinery is burning, the fire could lick the branches and ask for more trees. Fire trucks would do a much better job against a refinery conflagration; but we don’t have them. So I think we could do without a refinery.
Copyright © Tarty Teh 2008
Phone and text: (231) 6-617-433
December 6, 2008, Monrovia, Liberia
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Culled from the Agenda’s 11 December 2008 Edition.