BENGHAZI, Libya — Libyan rebels fighting Moammar Gadhafi won’t be able to produce more crude oil for at least another four weeks and are taking steps to conserve precious supplies of fuel and money, the top oil official in the breakaway east said Sunday.
The rebels need to repair equipment to pump oil from two key fields in the rebel-controlled east, Messla and Sarir, that were damaged in fighting, said Wahid Bughaigis, who serves as oil minister for the rebels.
“We just finished the assessment, and we are in the process of mobilizing the repairs,” Bughaigis told reporters in Benghazi, the de facto capital of the rebel-held east. “We believe we need a minimum of four weeks to get back on stream.”
OPEC member Libya sits atop Africa’s largest proven oil reserves. But Libyan exports have largely disappeared from the international market since the uprising began, helping drive oil prices to their highest levels in more than two years.
Earlier this month, the gulf state of Qatar helped rebels complete the sale of 1 million barrels of crude that netted roughly $129 million for the anti-Gadhafi forces.
But Bughaigis said he believed the rebels have spent much of that money on things such as imported gasoline.
“To put things in perspective, one cargo of gasoline of 25,000 metric tons costs us $75 million, so you don’t go far with $129 million,” he said.
Gasoline is sold at highly subsidized prices in eastern Libya. But Bughaigis said the rebels may have to re-examine whether the current consumption is sustainable.
“If it was only up to me, I would certainly put some rationing into the system, but we don’t want to give any satisfaction to Mr. Gadhafi,” said Bughaigis. “We want to show him we can run the country.”
To conserve fuel, the rebels have cut electricity production in Benghazi by 25 percent, said Bughaigis. The main plant providing power to the city used to be run with natural gas supplied from the oil facilities in Brega, now under government control.
Now power plants must rely on imported diesel fuel, he said.
The reduction in electricity production, which has been achieved by cutting power for up to 3.5 hours in different parts of the city, is meant to give the rebels “some breathing time between arrivals of tankers,” said Bughaigis.
“We didn’t have this problem when the gas was supplied to the plants, but now we have to supply it [diesel] by sea and get it from the road,” he said.
Bughaigis said previously that the equipment that was damaged at the oil fields included a power generation system, one oil tank and several small diesel tanks that fueled the generators.
The rebels say the equipment was hit by pro-Gadhafi forces. The government, however, has blamed British warplanes for the damage — a charge NATO denied.
The 12 billion-barrel Sarir oil field is the country’s largest, and Messla has 3 billion barrels. The two fields have a production capacity of about 400,000 barrels a day.