As the Wafra oil field on the Kuwaiti-Saudi Arabian border continued to blaze yesterday, scientists and environmentalists warned that the fire could be just the first shot in a potentially catastrophic ecological war.
In Kuwait, the occupying Iraqi army has control of 1,000 oil facilities, including hundreds of oil fields, refineries and storage tanks, said Brent Blackwelder, vice president of policy for the Washington-based environmental organization Friends of the Earth.
Kuwaiti refugees have told Western journalists that the Iraqi army has wired as many as 200 Kuwaiti oil fields with explosive devices.
If they were all to burn, the resulting plume of black smoke could blanket the entire region, creating an effect not unlike a volcanic eruption, said Alan Robock, professor of meteorology at the University of Maryland. Temperatures in the region could be lowered and weather patterns changed worldwide, affecting ecosystems as far away as India, he said.
Some experts expressed skepticism that that would occur, a skepticism reflected in steady oil prices yesterday.
"Everyone is focusing on what if all the oil in all the wells was ignited, what would happen?" said Alan Minzer, a professor at the university's Center for Global Change. "There is a real danger of local environmental effects from the current fire, but the chance of a global environmental catastrophe is low."
Mr. Minzer said that even if all the wells were ignited, only a fraction of the total Kuwaiti output of 3 million barrels a day would go up in smoke. Many of the Kuwaiti wells are low-pressure wells, according to the American Petroleum Institute, meaning the oil stays underground unless it is pumped out. A low-pressure well would not burn by itself.
Texaco Inc. is believed to own the wells in partnership with the Kuwait Oil Co. Yesterday, a Texaco spokesman said the Wafra well was a low-pressure one that produced about 135,000 barrels a day.
Scientists such as Paul Ehrlich, a professor at Stanford University who tracks population and environmental trends, said the focus on the oil fire obscures the most probable danger: "They could simply pour the stuff into the waters of the gulf." An oil spill would be difficult to clean up and would also hinder an allied coastal attack.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein showed little compunction about attacking environmentally sensitive targets during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, targeting coastal oil storage facilities and bombing loaded Iranian oil tankers.
Mr. Blackwelder said an attack by the Iraqi army on the Nawras, Iran, oil field ignited an oil fire that burned for months and caused what was at the time the world's second-largest oil spill. The slick was so large that it affected Saudi water desalinization plants hundreds of miles away, he said. About $50 million was spent cleaning it up, he said.
"We have a ruthless dictator trapped in a corner with this trump card," Mr. Blackwelder said. "Events could easily spiral out of control."