CHINA / National

Pipeline oil thieves face death penalty
By Zhu Zhe (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-04-01 06:19

China will hand out severe punishment, including the death penalty, to those who steal fuel from oil pipelines in the future.

An 8-month crackdown, which started this week, aims to reduce rampant theft and to prevent it from spreading following the recent rise in fuel prices, officials from the Ministry of Public Security told a press briefing in Beijing on Friday.

Although pipeline fuel theft has generally been on the decrease since 2002, stealing oil is still a big problem in certain areas.

This threatens public security and results in huge economic losses, said Ma Weiya, deputy director of the ministry's social security management department.

People stealing oil were normally imprisoned for theft, Ma said. But if their activities undermine pipeline safety and threaten public order, they will be given more severe punishment, even the death penalty.

Official figures show that 2,877 people were arrested last year for stealing oil or gas from pipelines. The police recovered about 1 billion yuan (US$123 million) worth of stolen fuel for oil companies.

China's oil and gas pipeline network is 30,000 kilometres long, and is expanding, Ma said.

He added that more cases of theft might have occurred, but gone unnoticed, in China's vast countryside. "But so far we haven't found any foreign-related cases."

He said the ministry believes fuel theft might increase again in the next few years as more pipelines are to be built and because of the steady rise in fuel prices.

"Most of the thieves are rural people who earn very little. They steal the fuel and sell it," he said.

"The police will show these gangs no leniency, even though some are under the protection of local governments, which use the stolen fuel to boost local economies," Ma said.

Dangerous to steal

The most common way of stealing, according to the ministry, is by drilling a hole in a section of pipeline and putting on a tap.

Ma said it is extremely dangerous as a single spark could easily trigger an explosion if there was a fuel leak.

In December 2003, an illegal tap installed on the Lanchengyu Pipeline, then the country's longest oil pipeline, blew off and caused a leak of more than 440 cubic metres of gasoline.

Oil supplies were cut off for about 15 hours and the nearby railway line was held up for six hours. The spilled gasoline seriously polluted local rivers and thousands of people had to be evacuated.

Two thieves responsible for the accident were executed for "destroying facilities that are easily combustible."

But Ma said punishment given to most pipeline thieves was less severe.

"Those who drill pipelines are usually charged with theft and receive prison sentences of less than 10 years," he said.

"But we're now suggesting they should be charged with destroying facilities that are easily combustible."

He added that China's Supreme People's Court is drafting related regulations that would add the death penalty to the list of punishments.

About 23 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities where fuel thefts are comparatively serious are involved in the ongoing crackdown.

(China Daily 04/01/2006 page2)