Kuwaiti oil fires likely to burn on for years, darken global economy WAR IN THE GULF

March 06, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

GREATER BURGAN OIL FIELD,KUWAIT — GREATER BURGAN OIL FIELD, Kuwait -- The dirty red satchel was packed with sandbags hard against the wellhead, its explosive contents ready to light a geyser of fire.

A detonator wire sneaked away from the charge. This one was not used. Or maybe it did not work. But 800 others did.

In defeat the Iraqi army created fields of fire that will affect the world's environment and economy for years. It may take two years just to extinguish the oil wells that were exploded and set ablaze, according to Kuwaiti officials.

The Iraqis created catastrophe with an efficiency they did not show on the battlefield. Of approximately 1,000 oil wells in Kuwait, the retreating Iraqis set fire to 550 and damaged 250 others with explosives.

The Greater Burgan Oil Field, one of the largest in the world, is now a primeval scene of fire and smoke. Plumes of flames rush into the air, as though the Earth has been pricked to its fiery core with hundreds of holes. One can turn in a circle and see only more fires, orange beacons shooting as much as 200 feet into the air.

There is an eerie roar at the wells, as the oil races skyward with the sound of a jet engine. Orange flame devours the spurting oil stream, finally giving way to the black smoke. The fires have reversed the natural order of light: By day it is dark, the sun a pale moonlike image, and night is illuminated by a sickly orange glow.

"This is going to take a long time," said Ahmad Murad, manager of the Kuwaiti Oil Co.

Oil fire expert Red Adair and two other U.S. companies, Boot and Coots and Evergreen Air, have been hired by the Kuwaitis to attack the burning wells. But they cannot even begin to work until the oil fields are cleared of mines left by the Iraqis.

"There's a lot of mines, a lot of booby traps, too much myster out there," said Ahmed al-Rayis, a maintenance and inspection engineer.

In the meantime, officials here believe that 6 million barrels a da are roiling black smoke into the sky. That is nearly three times the maximum production of the fields; the blasts have widened the well holes, so more oil is squeezed from the ground.

Unlike many oil fields in the United States, where the substanc must be pumped from the ground, Kuwaiti oil fields are under naturally high pressure and feed the fires.

Mr. Murad said the Iraqi army began wiring the wells fo explosives three to four months ago and set them off as they retreated in the face of the allied ground offensive. Mr. Murad said that his employees cut some of the wires but that the Iraqis restored them.

"They never said why they did this. I don't know if the word 'sick' is strong enough for this," he said.

The Iraqis also laid two 16-inch pipelines for 27 miles to pump oil into the sea, although it was unclear whether they used the lines. In northern Kuwait, 9 million barrels did escape into the sea, he said, far less than U.S. officials had calculated. "We don't consider this just a catastrophe for Kuwait. Oil belongs to the whole world," Mr. Murad said.

No one knows the environmental consequences of the huge clouds of black smoke lifting into the air. They already have changed the local weather: The thermal updraft creates winds, and the haze cools the sun for a wide area downwind of the fires. The rain here is slick and oily. The haze is foul and dismal.

Mr. Murad said he expects that neighboring countries will be affected as the black clouds drift as far south as India. Much of the smoke carries toxic chemicals, he said.

Oil revenues are the underpinning of the Kuwaiti economy, and $120 million worth of oil is going up in flames each day. Mr. Murad said it may be five years before the oil industry restores full production. The absence could affect world oil prices.

The fires could consume 10 percent to 15 percent of Kuwait's immense reserves, which were expected to last 100 years, he said.

In addition to the wells, much of the Kuwaiti oil industry infrastructure is damaged. The Iraqis destroyed oil-gathering facilities, pumping stations, tank farms and a terminal, stole the entire $80 million inventory of spare parts and chased away 15,000 foreign oil workers.

The cost of stopping the fires alone may be more than $1 billion. It is risky work. Ironically, explosives started the fires and also will put them out. A technician in asbestos clothing approaches the blaze while being constantly cooled from behind by water from hoses. He lowers a dynamite charge into the burning well, playing more water on it.

The explosion consumes the oxygen in the well, snuffing out the fire.

More difficult fires might require a different and more expensive approach in which another well bore is dug at an angle to the burning well. Thick mud or concrete is then pumped down the angled well to block off the supply of oil from the fire.

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