Fired-Up Inventors Have a Plan : But the Pros Trying to Cap Oil Well Fires Aren't Fazed by Flood of Ideas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Running from the innovative to the possible to the downright ridiculous, an estimated 1,500 alternative schemes to cap the rest of Kuwait's blazing oil wells have been proposed so far by companies, entrepreneurs and government agencies around the world.

Immense robot cranes and tanks, steel and concrete plugs, tunnels under the unexploded bombs and artillery shells that surround the wells and versions of the U.S. Air Force's smart bombs have been proposed for use.

But none has been thrown into the fight. And the acerbic firefighters doing the work have not been particularly impressed by this gallery of bright ideas.

"We've probably got four or five big boxes here of ideas from people who have never seen an oil field, but they just know they could do it," says James A. Tuppen, a team leader for Houston-based Boots & Coots Inc., one of three U.S. oil-firefighting companies working in Kuwait.

Snuffing the oil well fires has been sluggish, difficult work, because the blazes are powerful, oil lakes have spread around the fields and thousands of unexploded anti-personnel mines and other explosives still litter the ground.

In addition, getting equipment into the war-wrecked country has been logistically difficult. Today, in fact, the first steady shipment of the giant Caterpillar bulldozers firefighters have long called for will begin to arrive, thanks to U.S. Air Force C-5A transports. Meanwhile, inventors complain of intransigence by the Kuwaiti and U.S. governments, while government scientists, in many cases, fault the firefighters for the protracted process.

"The problem is one of political will, not technology," says David Dilworth, a Californian advocating an alternative idea.

"The firefighters' reaction is that it's all very interesting, but they're too busy fighting fires to fool around with unproven technology," says James S. Albus, chief of the robot systems division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Commerce Department agency that reviews such proposals.

This week, the Kuwaiti government revised its count of wells that are still burning and those that have been capped. Of the 732 it now says were set afire by the departing Iraqis, 200 have been controlled. A U.S. representative of the Kuwaitis told the Senate Gulf Pollution Task Force that the country intended to have 500 wells capped by year-end.

Yet alternative schemes abound, because the firefighters have for weeks been warning that the pace of their efforts is about to slow, as they work themselves into the bigger, more difficult fires.

"If we get through in the next four or five years, we'll be lucky at the rate we're going," firefighter Red Adair told the same Senate task force in June.

Ideas for capping the wells were presented in early April at a meeting of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. A few days later in Houston, firefighting companies, Kuwait Oil Co. and scientists from around the country discussed proposals.

"The Air Force had an idea for using laser-guided bombs," Albus recalls. Bombs would be exploded simultaneously, on either side of a burning well, to crimp the well off.

"Most of the people at the Houston meeting thought that was pretty far out," Albus says.

Simpler than most is a proposal from some California engineers that they call the concrete pencil--from the garage mechanic's trick of sticking a pencil into leaking brake lines while they repair them.

The device is essentially a giant poured concrete weight that looks like a mill wheel on its side. It would have a pointed stopper underneath that would provide a crude plug, held in place on the well by sheer weight. Other, steel-spike variations of this idea--called stingers--have already been used on smaller wells.

The concrete pencil wouldn't be a permanent cap but is designed simply to put out the fire and quickly stop up to 95% of the oil loss in each well. Wellhead valves and fittings would come later.

The idea came to Dilworth, founder of Carmel-based Dilworth Software Inc., as he was following a smoke-belching car on the freeway and hearing of the Kuwaiti fires. He called together a group of college friends--engineers, chemists and concrete specialists--who worked out a proposal.

Inventors contacting their congressional representatives are routinely steered to the Office of Energy-Related Inventions in the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology. The institute reviews such ideas for free. Then it sends the few that seem feasible along to the Department of Energy, which may support further development with grants or contracts.

"Edison invented out of a garage, so it's hard to say who has the viable stuff and who doesn't," says Kevin Matthews, a congressional fellow on the staff of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), chair of the task force.

But Tuppen, of Boots & Coots, remains unfazed. "Oil-well firefighting has been going on for over 60 years," he growls. "With all the money the oil companies have, no one has ever come up with anything better. And believe me, a lot of money and a lot of technology have been spent on this."

Firefighting in Kuwait

About 1,500 schemes to cap the rest of Kuwait's blazing oil wells have come from the world's entrepreneurs.

Concrete pencil: Some California engineers have suggested a massive weight with pointed stopper as a crude plug until wells could be permanently capped.

Tunnels: Several companies have proposed digging trenches under unexploded ordnance, attacking the well casing below ground level.

Robot cranes: Scientists at the U.S. Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology have proposed using robot cranes to extinguish fires and provide steady platforms for capping operations. A scale model is being tested.

Robot tanks: A German company is reportedly experimenting with remote-control tanks that could maneuver near the wells, unimpeded by ordnance.

Aerial plowing: Friends of the Earth has proposed dragging heavy earth-turning devices by cable from military helicopters in front of wells, to detonate unexploded ordnance.

Explosions: Various companies have suggested explosives--including laser-guided U.S. Air Force smart bombs--to snuff the well fires.

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