Lack of bitumen halts roadworks

A bitumen shortage has arrested public works progress across South Africa, including bus rapid transit projects in central Johannesburg and 35 national roads agency projects.

Bitumen, a residue of petroleum distillation, is a vital component of tar and commonly used in the surfacing of roads. But its production is hardly a priority for oil companies because it accounts for less than 1% of their turnover.

The demand for bitumen, also known as asphalt, has increased over the years and shutdowns at two of the four supplying oil refineries have strained the existing supply.

Thanduxolo Mendrew, acting chief executive of the Johannesburg Development Agency, said no anticipated road contracts would be awarded while the shortage continued, which was expected to endure for up to five months.

Projects in Johannesburg have felt the effects of the shortage.
Most notably affected is the Rissik and Harrison streets bus rapid transit project, which was on track for completion by the end of November. But because of the limited supply of bitumen the project will most likely be completed only next year.

Also delayed is a 4.8 kilometres bus rapid transit section near Noordgesig in Soweto, due for completion in March, and the Forbes Road upgrade in Meadowlands.

“We are having ongoing discussions with our teams to formulate a uniform contractual position regarding these delays to mitigate or avert any additional cost to the contracts,” Mendrew said.

Engen’s Durban refinery was shut after a fire broke out last month, just days before a scheduled six-week closure for maintenance, and will resume operations at the end of the month. The Sapref refinery, a joint venture between BP and Shell, shut down for maintenance in August. Chevron’s Cape Town refinery and the Natref refinery in Sasolburg, a joint venture between Total and Sasol, supply bitumen intermittently.

The South African National Roads Agency told the Mail & Guardian that it had used about 70% of the bitumen supply last year. “Any bitumen shortage that exists in the industry is severely impacting the completion of Sanral projects.”

The agency said the impact was further compounded by the fact that during the winter months, from May to August, no bitumen seal-related work could be performed in about 75% of South Africa because of the low overnight temperatures, resulting in delays until September.

The Cape Town Chamber of Commerce has also expressed concern over the shortage. Its president, Michael Bagraim, said oil companies should have anticipated the threatening collapse, but because bitumen was not as profitable as other goods produced at the refineries, it wasn’t a major concern for them. “We are very much at the mercy of these large companies,” he said.

The South African Bitumen Association said demand had not suddenly increased but had, in fact, dropped—last year it was 450 000 tonnes and this year it was expected to be 420 000 tonnes.

Phillip Hechter, managing director of Much Asphalt and chairman of the association, said the refineries were between 40 and 50 years old and scheduled and unplanned shutdowns were occurring more frequently.

“For the past four years supply has been at its worst, but this year has been really bad.”

Hechter said his company, the largest commercial supplier of asphalt products, regularly experienced bitumen shortages of between 50% and 70%. The effects were widespread, but Hechter said he felt most sorry for the one-man businesses and small contractors dependent on the product.

Bagraim said the shortage meant that little work would get done. “If we don’t have bitumen, we can’t deliver goods or service roads. We are suppressing development and employment opportunities.”

Importing bitumen poses problems because South African harbours do needed to keep the substance warm.

Despite this, the shortage has prompted Much Asphalt and Colas, which supplies specialty products and services for road surfacing, to bring in a “hot ship” with 4 000 tonnes of imported bitumen later this month.

“It is more expensive, but in a market that has no bitumen we don’t have a choice,” Hechter said. The load is likely to last between two and three weeks.

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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