New physical barriers keeping would-be saboteurs from attacking Iraq's northern pipeline have led to increased oil exports. It's a major reason Elizabeth Burg, a U.S. Army civilian who volunteered for duty in Iraq, was recently named one of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' top five proteges.
Burg's duties include inspections of Iraqi contract workers beefing up the Pipeline Exclusion Zone, a project begun in 2007 to restrict access to vital oil arteries and build obstacles for attacks.
"Oil is the base of the economy in Iraq, and this project is protecting that source of income," Burg, a project engineer at the Balad base in Iraq, told United Press International. "If the pipeline is damaged, it impacts the revenue stream, which is playing a huge part in the reconstruction of the country.
"The oil money is funding the construction of schools, roads, power plants, water treatment plants, etc., and if that were to be cut off, everything would come to a standstill."
The northern pipeline sending oil to a depot in Turkey was mostly inoperable from 2003 until 2008, as insurgents capitalized on an easy target. The Iraqi and U.S. governments began paying people to guard instead of attack the pipeline, which, combined with the construction of the PEZ, has allowed a steady 250,000 to 450,000 barrels per day of oil to flow north.
Oil makes up nearly all the state income, more than $61 billion last year as oil exports hit post-2003 records and the price of oil reached an all-time high. The downturn in oil prices, plus a ragged economy, increases the importance of protecting the pipeline.
Attackers wanting to penetrate the PEZ must, in rough terms, traverse a ditch, berms, razor wire and then a fence, all while keeping cover from new Oil Police and other Iraqi security forces based within the protective zone.
"One of the main features is the road crossings, which restrict access across the area," Burg wrote in an e-mail interview with UPI. "The area is very flat and wide open (your typical desert), but the Tigris River was an obstacle in our particular area; it was very marshy, and getting the fence installed there was a challenge.
"One of the constructability issues we had to deal with is the high water table in the area," she added. "It ended up working to our benefit, because when the ditches on the outside of the fence fill with water, it creates sort of a 'water hazard,' which makes crossing in to the exclusion zone even more difficult. The terrain close to the Tigris is very rough, which was also a challenge during construction."
While oil infrastructure attacks have been nearly exclusive to the area north of Baghdad, the PEZ project envisions a nearly all-encompassing protection.
Burg said the corridor from Baghdad to the typically hot area of Bayji -- a major refinery and the scene of attacks on corruption -- will be fenced in next month. "And then a separate project will take it further south until it reaches the ports."
Burg, the daughter of a military dad, said she'd never even considered private sector work. She received a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and is now a graduate student at Mississippi State University. She's been at her current position in Iraq since November 2008.
"The experience I'm getting in Iraq is incredible; everything here is very fast-paced," she said, "and I've been able to work on many different types of construction projects."
Recently she was selected from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' entire roster as one of the "Top Five New Faces in Engineering" in 2009.
Besides the PEZ, Burg's job includes Iraqi police station construction and U.S. military projects.
"We work with local Iraqi engineers and teach them what kind of quality we're looking for in a finished product," she said, "so we can eventually work ourselves out of a job."