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From Battlefield to Oilfield

Searching for buried explosives inch by inch across a landmass the size of Bahrain is all part of a day’s work for Ken Portanger, Shell Iraq’s Explosive Removal team lead. Littered with mines, grenades, missiles and other deadly munitions, the Majnoon site is a stark reminder of the field’s turbulent past.

Located along the border of Iraq near Iran, Majnoon (“crazy” in Arabic) is a super major oilfield which has seen its fair share of crazy times. It was the site of major land battles during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s. These battles took their toll on the field’s oil production facilities, but also the neighbouring communities. Shell started work on the Majnoon field development project in early 2010.  First it had to clean the field’s explosive past, by literally sifting through the sands of time.

“Majnoon remains one of the most heavily contaminated areas in terms of Explosive Remnants of War, or ERW, in the world,” says Ken Portanger, the Majnoon ERW team leader. Much like the role of bomb-disposal experts the world over, his job is to comb sections of the field’s enormous expanse inch by inch to locate and clear unexploded munitions. At almost 1,000 square kilometers, it’s an area slightly larger than Bahrain.

The ordnance ranges from small anti-personnel mines to 500 kilogram air-dropped bombs that have “ploughed in” up to six meters below ground level. Removing these mines, grenades and bombs, scattered over the entire field remains a major obstacle to building camps, facilities, pipelines, well pads and roads. In fact, even daily movement within the camp is a challenge.

Early efforts to locate munitions were carried out in a traditional way, using handheld mine detection equipment. Because some ERW have little metal content, the detection units were also picking up other small pieces of shrapnel lodged throughout the field,  all of which have to be marked, dug up and safely dealt with. This created the by now familiar “poppy field” picture of Majnoon, where hundreds of red flags mark possible explosives. However, from the outset the case for change and some innovative thinking had to be put in place: In the areas around drilling sites and designated passages throughout Majnoon, the top 30 cm of soil were to be sifted using special armored trucks to remove any superficially or deeply lodged explosives.

Shell established an in-house explosive removal team, the first of its kind, to develop fit-for-purpose standards and then provide training, assessment, project management and supervision to Iraqi de-mining authorities. The team quickly introduced armoured bulldozers and loaders – modified specifically for the project to meet NATO specifications, and including certification by third-party specialists through blast-testing. Shell also ensured the training of 200 local community members to become qualified and accredited de-miners.

Within 10 months, the programme has established a first class de-mining operation which achieved all first commercial production deadlines and enabled the Majnoon development to proceed. More importantly, the project has been a life-saver for Iraqis in the nearby communities – many of whom have experienced the deadly effects of living in the midst of a battlefield.

Award-winning team

The Majnoon ERW team won the 2011 Chief Executive HSSE & Social Performance Award in the category “Do the Right Thing”, which recognises teams demonstrating consistent excellence in safety performance.

Read about their HSSE & SP Award

RELATED: Iraq, Shell sign Majnoon field deal and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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