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Kuwait Oil Fires: Year to Put Out?

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

It may take a year or longer to extinguish about 550 Kuwaiti oil wells fire-bombed or damaged by retreating Iraqi troops, and five years before the country’s devastated oil export production facilities are fully restored, stunned U.S. and Kuwaiti experts said Tuesday.

Petroleum engineers getting their first close-up look at the disaster estimate that the wells are burning 6 million barrels of oil a day, or three times Kuwait’s daily production before the Iraqi invasion last Aug. 2.

“At $20 a barrel, that’s $120 million a day going up in smoke,” said Steve Johnson, an Evergreen Air official who flew over the oil fields Tuesday. “It looks like a holocaust.”

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Another 250 wells are either spewing oil high into the air, or are otherwise damaged, hemorrhaging millions more barrels. Numerous other wells are booby-trapped with C-4 plastic explosive charges, and several oil fields have been mined. Kuwait has 1,080 oil wells.

Ahmed Murad, a manager at the state-run Kuwait Oil Co., estimated that 10% to 15% of Kuwait’s 94 billion barrels in proven reserves may be lost before the fires are extinguished and the wells capped.

The unprecedented destruction also could permanently affect Kuwait’s oil production and prices, since the uncontrolled release of so much oil is likely to suck sand and water into the country’s relatively pure, vast underground oil reservoirs.

As thick black smoke, including toxic fumes, poured from the hellish inferno of wellhead fires, a black rain poured down all day here from eerily darkened skies, staining cars and concrete alike, and the temperature was far colder than normal.

Murad, who is helping direct firefighting and reconstruction efforts, said the fires could cause “catastrophic atmospheric changes” affecting climate and agriculture as far away as India.

“It’s a calamity for all mankind,” he said.

Other scientists say the fires are not likely to affect India’s monsoon season or disturb the climate outside the Gulf region because the smoke is rising to only 12,000 feet, not high enough to get into the stratosphere, the upper layer of the atmosphere.

But black rain has reportedly fallen as far away as southern Turkey, about 600 miles from here, and soot clouds have darkened the skies over Qatar and Bahrain.

Richard Small, a director for Pacific-Sierra Research Corp. in Los Angeles, said in a report for the Pentagon in January that he did not believe the smoke would create climatic upheavals. He cautioned in an interview, however, that there has been no comparable event from which scientists can draw conclusions.

Dane Konop, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, said public health experts believe that people caught under the moving soot clouds should take precautions. Sulfur dioxide emitted by the fires can cause a variety of ailments, including breathing difficulties. Children, the elderly and the infirm are most at risk.

The Iraqis exploded demolition charges at virtually every Kuwaiti wellhead and oil storage facility on Feb. 16. They also destroyed pipelines, pumping stations and more than half the country’s 26 oil-gathering complexes.

“It’s beyond imagination,” said Saud Nashimi, a Kuwaiti who will head the international firefighting effort. “It’s much worse than we thought.”

Four firefighting teams--Red Adair Co., Boots & Coots, Wild Well Control Inc., all from Texas, and Safety Boss, a Canadian firm--said they cannot begin work until unexploded bombs and mines are cleared. And, they said, it will take 30 to 60 days before enough bulldozers, cranes, high-pressure hoses, pipes and other equipment arrive in sufficient quantities.

Konop said all but 60 of the wells now aflame will eventually burn themselves out, and the rest will have to be extinguished.

But Murad said initial surveys suggest about 75% of the fires can be extinguished using explosive charges, and the wells can then be capped. Each would cost up to $1 million to handle.

The other wells, some of them 8,000 feet deep, will require the drilling of a separate well at an angle, called “directional drilling.” Concrete mud is then pumped into the underground reservoir to plug the damaged well and extinguish the fire. This technique will cost $3 million to $6 million per well.

Murad said it may take more than a year before the worst fires are extinguished, and at least that long before Kuwait can again export oil. Resuming full export production of 1.5 million barrels a day could take five years, he added.

“That’s being optimistic,” he said. “Inshallah “ (God willing).

He said damage to the underground reserves by infiltration of sand and water could increase production costs by 400%. He said initial efforts will focus on oil fields in southeast and western Kuwait. Those in the north, closest to Iraq, will be the last to be capped.

In Ahmadi, atop the Burgan field, 20 miles south of Kuwait city, drilling engineer Ayad Kandari told reporters that an orange-red device attached to one well is an unexploded booby-trap. A long detonator wire runs off into the desert.

Murad said the Iraqi troops set the explosive charges three or four months ago.

Times environmental writer Maura Dolan in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

EXTINGUISHING KUWAIT’S BLAZING OIL WELLS

INFERNOS OF WAR

A majority of Kuwait’s 950 oil wells are now engulfed in flames. Whether the blazes were set by Saddam Hussein’s army to carry out his “scorched earth policy” or were started by allied bombing attacks on enemy troops, the priority issue for newly liberated Kuwait is to squelch those fires and to cap the damaged oil wells. According to firefighting specialists, the blazes may burn for months before all the wells are capped. Although damage to each well varies, basic steps to safely cap them include:

1. Pumps spray a wall, an estimated 5,000 gallons a minute, onto the burning well. Once the water has doused the fire, temperatures beneath the well start to drop from more than 500 degrees to below 90 degrees. The water is either drilled on-site or pumped from the Persian Gulf.

2. Flames from oil well fires can climb as high as 600 feet, but the steady curtain of water extinguishes many of them. If a well continues to burn, a team loads C-4 (a plastic explosive) or 300 to 400 pounds of dynamite in a 50-gallon drum. The drum is suspended over the fire and detonated. The explosion creates an oxygen depletion that snuffs out the flame like a candle.

3. Crew members remove damaged equipment and debris from the well with a crane. In a course of battle, some wellheads are blown apart, leaving nothing but a burning hole in the ground. If the well can be rebuilt, the team replaces the underground piping, packs off the wellhead, tops the well with an apparatus called a Christmas tree, below, and shuts off the flow of oil. If damage to the well is too severe, the crew replaces the piping and seals off the wellhead.

FREE-FLOWING FIRES

In most Kuwaiti oil fields, oil freely bubbles to the surface. Explosions in the last days of the Iraqi occupation have caused even more oil to surface and catch fire.

Oil Destruction: Kuwait is losing more than 6 million barrels of oil a day to the fires.

Oil Field Restoration Costs: Estimates to restore oil production capacity range from $50 million to $100 billion.

AMONG THE WORST FIRES

Sept. 8, 1988: A Ventura County oil well fire ignites when an electric fan apparently malfunctions, igniting vapors from two 33,600-gallon fuel storage tanks. The fire burns for six days, causing more than $5 million in losses before it is extinguished.

July 6, 1988: A North Sea oil rig, off the coast of Scotland, is engulfed in flames after a gas leak sparks a fire below the rig. The initial blowout splits the giant platform, sending flames 400 feet into the air. Firefighters work for three weeks to plug three wellheads and control fire in two others.

Oct. 23, 1986: A Gulf of Mexico oil rig blowout sends flames 600 feet into the air. Broken equipment blocking the wellhead opening creates a crosswind of flames, hindering the firefighters’ efforts. The fire burns for weeks before it is capped.

Sept. 30, 1986: An exploratory well in Campeche, Mexico, catches fire as it is being capped. The fire rages out of control for a month, burning off 25,000 barrels of oil a day before it is brought under control.

Source: Boots & Coots, Times Wire Services Researched by APRIL JACKSON / Los Angeles Times


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