Oil Thieves in China Siphoned Off $70 Million Before Being Caught

January 29, 2016 Updated: January 29, 2016

A court in Beijing recently sentenced three men to life in prison after discovering an audacious plot that resulted in the siphoning of about $71 million worth of refined oil from a pipeline.

The men, all industry veterans and close relatives.

The caper began in 2007, when Sun Lei discovered that land he had been renting in Beijing’s Fangshan District was near underground oil pipelines. He added a warehouse to his property in order to facilitate the theft.

Sun Lei began working with his son, Sun Zhigang, both of whom worked at the major Chinese oil company Sinopec, to steal the oil.

After discovering a joint in the pipe about 165 feet south of their lot, in October 2009 they installed their own piping with seamless elbows and valves to transport the oil back to their property. The oil ended up in underground tanks in 13-feet-deep pits beneath two garages.

They then began selling it for below market prices. This continued for three years, until a flow meter was finally put on the line.

Within three days, discrepancies in the flow volume were discovered and the company sent for experts to investigate. The theft was soon exposed, bringing down, along with the father and son, Sinopec’s deputy chief economist Sun Weijing, who was the brother to Sun Lei.

Sinopec, whose full name is China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation, is the largest oil refiner in Asia, and one of the biggest companies in China.

The news of the Sun’s oil pilfering was widely reported in the Chinese press in early January, but the reports did not specify the court sentencing dates. An anonymous petroleum expert told Yangcheng Evening News that it’s easy to tap oil by digging a hole to reach the pipeline, and then installing a secondary line. Theoretically, volume loss caused by theft could be discovered, but in this case, the amount stolen was within the accepted range of natural loss. This, the expert said, would explain why the Suns were able to maintain their operation for so long without discovery.