Teams ill prepared to battle Iraqi oil well fires
By Richard Valdmanis
NEW YORK, Jan 30 (Reuters) - Firefighting firms that doused
the blazing oil wells of Kuwait in the aftermath of the first
Gulf War are concerned by a lack of preparation ahead of a
potential repetition in Iraq, the companies said on Thursday.
The United States has done little so far to prime them for
battling burning crude in the vast Iraqi desert, a likely
scenario amid signals that Baghdad will attempt to destroy its
fields in the event of a U.S. invasion.
The situation cuts a stark contrast to the planning in
place before Kuwait's wells were ignited by Iraqi troops in
1991, and could spell a much worse environmental disaster and
shock to the world's oil markets.
Iraq has about twice the number of oil wells as Kuwait
spread across 25 times the land area -- with many of the fields
several hundred miles (kilometers) from the water required to
cool a searing oil blaze, experts said.
"We see an urgent need for an emergency response plan,"
said Mike Miller, president of Canada's Safety Boss, an oil
well control company that put out 180 of Kuwait's more than 700
burning oil wells after the Gulf War.
"Many people are predicting damage to Iraq's wells, but no
one seems to be taking the next obvious step," he said.
The White House is building a case to invade Iraq, claiming
the country has violated sanctions by developing weapons of
mass destruction. The United States will present evidence of
Iraqi weapons violations to the United Nations next week.
Oil well control teams, including Safety Boss, Boots and
Coots International Well Control Inc., RPC Inc.'s Cudd
Pressure Control, and Superior Energy Services Inc.'s Wild Well
Control -- which worked together in Kuwait -- have been put on
notice by low level U.S. military officials that their services
may be required in the coming months.
But large questions remain over how and when fire-fighting
equipment would be moved to the region, and who would finance
the multibillion-dollar effort.
"In Kuwait there was a willing and wealthy government to
finance the work and provide contracts, and planning began four
months before the wells were ignited," said Miller. "This isn't
the case in Iraq. The U.S. or the U.N. may have to pay, and
there has been almost no planning."
"Iraq is a very different challenge from Kuwait," said Bill
Mahler, manager of Wild Well Control. "In Iraq, we have very
little intelligence about the wells and the information we have
received so far has been very general and vague."
Dousing the oil fires in Kuwait after the first Gulf War
cost about $2.5 billion, with an additional $17 to $18 billion
for reconstructing the damaged oil infrastructure, with the
lion's share of the money coming from Kuwait.
A senior U.S. official said last week that Iraq intends to
"cause damage or destruction" to its own oil fields if war
breaks out," and that there are indications that President
Saddam Hussein's forces have already started planning.
Such an attack threatens to be worse than a repetition of
the oil blazes in Kuwait, which spilled 50 million barrels of
oil onto the desert, 10 million barrels into the ocean, and
reduced 500 million barrels into thick black clouds.
"It made the Exxon Valdez look like a drop in the bucket,"
said Safety Boss's Miller.
It could also potentially set off a spike in world crude
oil prices, already flirting with two-year highs due to war
fears and supply disruptions from Venezuela, dealing a blow to
the fragile world economy.
With response time of the essence, well control firms said
they expect one hurdle to be finding water supplies for some of
the major Iraqi fields due to the distance of some of them from
the Mideast Gulf and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
Additionally, the prospect of reversing oil pipelines from
the Mideast Gulf to supply water to damaged fields, as was done
in the dry areas of Kuwait, has been made less attractive due
to the threat of sabotage in a post-war Iraq.
"In Kuwait we could use oil pipelines to bring water to the
fields because the hostile forces had been pushed out. But in
Iraq, it might be much more difficult," said Mahler. "The
people would certainly not be happy after an invasion, and we
could not expect them to welcome us with open arms."
While some well control firms hire their own "ordinance
teams" to handle booby-trapping, the firms said most of the
security concerns for potential work in Iraq would be dealt
with by the U.S. military.
Iraq may also take aim at oil fields in neighboring
countries, some fear. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz
this week pinpointed Kuwait as a possible target due to the
presence of U.S. forces there.
"Kuwait is a battlefield and American troops are in Kuwait
and preparing themselves to attack Iraq," he said. "We will of
course retaliate against the American troops wherever they
start their aggression on Iraq."
"We've seen what this kind of thing can do to a country,"
said Mahler. "The people will need the flow from these wells to
recover from the impacts of war. If Saddam does this stuff, it
would be a big blow to his people."

Reut16:21 01-30-03