Kuwait – who’s fighting what?

Published:  03 February, 2010

To celebrate Industrial Fire Journal's 20th anniversary we are be re-publishing throughout 2010 some of the best articles from the last 20 years. Here, from issue number 3 (1991) of Industrial Fire Journal, is a report from Kuwait, where every 24-hours oilfield fires were burning up six million barrels of Kuwait’s oil reserves – a figure almost double the peak production of three million barrels per day (bpd) in 1979 and four times the pre-invasion Kuwaiti output in 1990.

Every 24-hours the oilfield fires in Kuwait burn up six million barrels of Kuwait’s oil reserves – a figure almost double the peak production of three million barrels per day (bpd) in 1979 and four times the pre-invasion Kuwaiti output in 1990.

While current estimates suggest that only 2-3% out of Kuwait’s reserves of 100 billion barrels will be lost from the current fires, the loss of oil from uncapped and burning wells seems likely to damage underground reservoirs. This may reduce the amount that can be extracted in future or make oil production more expensive: conceivably it could do both.

Arguably, the tide began to turn on March 17th, 1991, when Sgt. Forrest Irvin of a US Army bomb disposal team and Ray Sturm, a former Kuwait Oil Company superintendent of drilling, became the first people to extinguish a Kuwaiti oilwell fire.

At the time the oilman was advising the bomb expert on the places the firefighters would need to have made clear. Sturm saw that the Iraqis’ explosives had, in fact, inadvertently left one well-head intact and that several turns of a valve would be all that was needed to extinguish the fire.

Thus, the job was done, accomplished at half-a-turn at a time as the immense heat meant that each man could only endure 8 seconds at a time.

THE OFFICIAL APPROACH: Unfortunately, extinguishing the rest of the oil well fires requires more resources on a more organised basis than this previous example. Early on, Kuwait’s government recognised the expertise of a number of specialist North American companies:

THE RED ADAIR COMPANY: Headed by Red Adair (75), arguably the world’s most famous and experienced firefighter;

BOOTS & COOTS, INC: Headed by Asger ‘Boots’ Hanson (65) and Edward O. Coots Matthews (68);

WILD WELL CONTROL, INC: Headed by Joe Bowden (57);

VETCO GRAY: Based in Houston, Texas.

SAFETY BOSS: Based in British Columbia, Canada.

A TYPICAL SCENARIO: Ray Wadley (66) of Wild Well Control, has been attacking burning oil wells with sprays of seawater. This enables him to move closer to the wellhead through a vast area of burning coke or ‘baked oil’, as the firefighter puts it. Each fire takes around a week or more to control, and must finally be given the coup-de-grace with nitrogen-snuffing equipment.

“There are around 600 oilwell fires in Kuwait at the moment [June 1st, 1991] and I reckon it’ll take two years to put them all out. No two are alike” Wadley tells visiting reporters.

“Everyone is talking about killing these fires. Killing is simple. My wife can kill one. Capping and containing the well is where the expertise lies. It takes know-how.”

Even with the right know-how, the task of putting out Kuwait’s oilwell fires has been a slow one, principally due – say those in the field – to a lack of water and to unnecessary bureaucratic delays in getting the required heavy equipment over the Saudi border.

THE EUROPEANS FIGHT BACK: While the three major US companies and one Canadian firm involved had the firefighting monopoly until two weeks ago, British experts are trying to ‘break into’ Kuwait’s firefighting programme, arguing that more modern techniques could bring the timetable for complete extinguishment down to 12 months – believed to be the unofficial estimate of the Kuwaiti government.

To date, 96 burning wells have been successfully capped – but these have been the ‘easy’ ones. Some cannot even be approached because of Iraqi minefields, others are surrounded by pools of oil so vast they cannot be burnt.

Visitors to the oilfields describe the scene as ‘Apocalyptic’. To pierce the smoke that has turned day into night, firefighting crews bring in bright klieg lights. Giant bulldozers crawl off flatbed trucks while firefighters use powerful arc welders, powered by roaring diesel engines, to build special rigging for their assignments.

“This is Dante’s Inferno,” commented Dave Wilson, an engineer with the Houston-based company, Vetco Gray. His colleague, Charles Bridges agrees. “It’s also one of the biggest messes I have ever seen.” he says.

The heat is intense, hot enough to cause discomfort for visitors even in a closed car several hundred yards away from a burning oil well. “When I got here, all I could think of was – what a big mess,” commented George Hill, a firefighter with Wild Well Control, Inc.

PRODUCTION HOPES: Despite the fact that oil, valued by some experts at $100 million per day, is still going up in smoke, Kuwait is hoping to begin production from undamaged wells as from this month (June1st) with a projected flow of 50,000 barrels per day (bpd), rising to an anticipated 100,000 bpd by June 30th, 1991.

Certainly, the burning oil is creating health problems, adding to a miasma created by fumes from diesel generators and smoke from rubbish fires in Kuwait City, but each wellhead has to be dealt with as an individual problem. The pressure of escaping oil and gas – together with the levels of toxic gases such as hydrogen sulphide – varies from head to head, as does the type of valve and the damage done to each installation.

Most of the firefighters have the same game-plan: to reverse the flow of the pipes that normally carry oil to the sea and to bring in thousands of gallons of seawater to cool the heads before extinguishing the flame with an explosive charge.

Once the damage has been properly assessed, most heads will be lit again, allowing them to burn off gas and oil until the oilmen are ready to repeat the procedure to install new valves.

HOW THE EXPERTS DO IT: Joe Bowden, boss of Wild Well Control Inc, outlined his typical plan of attack:

“First we inspect the location of the well. Then we clear it and fix the drainage so that the oil runs cleanly away. By this time we know if we can put a capping device – a valve – on the well as it stands.

“ If this cannot be done, we make preparations to cut off the wellhead completely. If we have to, we scrape down into the pipe until we find a good section. We use a hydraulic machine, but if we can’t get close enough we use a plain old cable drawn back and forth on winches, just like you’ve seen a plumber do.”

When the well pipe is cleanly cut, the team extinguish the fire, usually the water, but sometimes with nitrogen or even explosives, especially on large wells. They leave putting out the fire as long as possible: “Otherwise we’d drown in oil: observes Bowden.

Once the fire is out, a bulldozer with a series of booms on trailers affixed to it is reversed into position and a new valve, fully opened to offer least resistance, is manoeuvred through the jet of oil, lowered over the pipe and clamped into position.

“Then we shut the well down. After that we will pump drilling fluid and Barite, which is three-and-a-half times as heavy as water, down the valve. In some cases you can leave the well with its valve and it’ll be safe, but in most cases the well will have to be killed.”

WHAT IS THE TYPICAL PROFILE OF A WELL? Kuwait wells are generally shallow (around 4,000-6,000 feet down) and the oil flows at a high volume with comparatively low pressure. Bowden argues that it might be possible to stop the fires quickly with such crude methods as dumping debris and sand on them – but that would be more polluting in the long run because of leaks of crude oil and therefore cannot be considered as an option.

The experts do not expect many of the existing wells to be used again: most will have to be drilled afresh. The other depressing news is that the pace of wellhead fire extinguishment is difficult to speed up. Many of the world’s best-qualified wild-well control specialists are already working in Kuwait and newcomers cannot be trained up over-night.

“People have to be rotated as well,” Joe Bowden told reporters, “You’re working sun-up to sundown, with heat up to your ass and oil up to your ass…people just can’t take it forever.”

Most of the oilmen estimate that it could take up to 18 months before the last well fire in Kuwait is extinguished. If they can concentrate on the well fires closest to Kuwait City and Ahmadi, it’s believed that this will create a positive improvement in the quality of air breathed by Kuwait’s citizens.

“I’m optimistic,” says Larry Flack, coordinator of the firefighting teams. “I think we’re going to get real quick at this. We’re going to learn how to do it fast.”

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: Rashid al-Amiri, Kuwait’s former oil minister, last month publicly expressed his impatience at the slow progress being made by the Americans and the Canadians who estimate that their work will take between 18-24 months to complete.

In a press conference described by the UK’s Times newspaper as being ‘notable for alternative praise and blame for the companies already slogging away in the desert’, Rashid al-Amiri announced that the government was to cut ‘total extinguishment time’ to seven months by hiring other foreign nationals to supplement the firefighting work.

Despite the fact that 80% of the world’s industrial firefighting personnel are already working in Kuwait, teams from France, Germany, China and Iran are likely to be employed by the end of this month. Agip of Italy, Petrofina of Belgium and Elf Aquitaine of France already have personnel in the field.

By way of an incentive, a £11.6 million package to help Kuwait cope with ‘Iraq’s environmental crimes’ has already been approved by the European Commission; over half of this money (£7.6 million) has so far been earmarked to assist European companies in setting up firefighting operations in Kuwait.

Indeed, on May 7th, it was widely reported that the UK’s Energy Secretary, John Wakeham, struck a £1 billion deal with the Kuwait government to provide British firefighting teams to help with the situation. Oil minister Dr. Hammoud Rqobah has asked the Kuwaiti British Fire Group, a consortium of British companies, including Amec, Wimpey and Taylor Woodrow, to conduct an urgent damage assessment of 152 wells.

“The initial contract is to extinguish 72 wells, to be followed by another 80 nearby. Eventually, the total contract is likely to be worth more than £1 billion.” A Downing Street spokesman has revealed.

But while the international wrangling over ‘who-ought-to-be-doing-what’ goes on, things aren’t looking too encouraging for Kuwait and its people. Pools of oil from the Abdali field are rising over sand barriers and getting dangerously close to the sea, according to Edward Gnehm, US ambassador to Kuwait. “Driving from one end of the field to the other, a distance of only a few miles, is like crossing a dozen time-zones within a few minutes. One side is bright and sunny, the other lies in total darkness.” He said.

Unburnt oil gushes from the wells, forming pools of thick, sticky muck. In some areas, oil spillage is four times the size of a football field. In others it drowns the road that runs through the oilfield and, in several places the oil is as much as four feet deep.

No matter what the experts can do, for at least 12 months or more Kuwait is still likely to be haemorrhaging its financial lifeblood.

  • Operation Florian

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