Iraq Burns Kuwaiti Oil Wells Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During their retreat from occupied Kuwait, Iraqi armed forces set fire to nearly seven hundred oil wells, creating the worst oil-field disaster in history.

Summary of Event

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi forces invaded the small, oil-rich neighboring nation of Kuwait, triggering the largest military action since World War II. On November 29, 1990, the United Nations voted to permit the use of force to expel the Iraqi invaders from Kuwait. U.S. troops had already been sent to Saudi Arabia to defend against possible Iraqi moves against that nation in Operation Desert Shield. Operation Desert Shield Ultimately, the forces arrayed against Iraq included more than 700,000 troops from a coalition of twenty-eight countries, including 527,000 U.S. troops, 118,000 Saudi Arabian troops, 46,000 British troops, and 40,000 Egyptian troops. On January 16, 1991, coalition forces began air attacks on Iraqi targets. The active combat phase of operations was named Operation Desert Storm. Operation Desert Storm Persian Gulf War (1991) Pollution;air Air pollution;smoke Disasters;oil fires Fires;Kuwait oil fields Ecological disasters Kuwait;oil field fires [kw]Iraq Burns Kuwaiti Oil Wells (Jan. 27-Nov. 7, 1991) [kw]Kuwaiti Oil Wells, Iraq Burns (Jan. 27-Nov. 7, 1991) [kw]Oil Wells, Iraq Burns Kuwaiti (Jan. 27-Nov. 7, 1991) Pollution;air Air pollution;smoke Disasters;oil fires Fires;Kuwait oil fields Ecological disasters Kuwait;oil field fires [g]Middle East;Jan. 27-Nov. 7, 1991: Iraq Burns Kuwaiti Oil Wells[08000] [g]Kuwait;Jan. 27-Nov. 7, 1991: Iraq Burns Kuwaiti Oil Wells[08000] [c]Disasters;Jan. 27-Nov. 7, 1991: Iraq Burns Kuwaiti Oil Wells[08000] [c]Energy;Jan. 27-Nov. 7, 1991: Iraq Burns Kuwaiti Oil Wells[08000] [c]Environmental issues;Jan. 27-Nov. 7, 1991: Iraq Burns Kuwaiti Oil Wells[08000] Hussein, Saddam Schwarzkopf, H. Norman Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;Persian Gulf War Adair, Red Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah Saad al-Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah

After six weeks of aerial bombardment, coalition forces launched a ground attack into Kuwait and southern Iraq on February 23, 1991. American and other coalition forces swept into Iraq west of Kuwait. One prong of the offensive thrust north to the Euphrates River, while a second curved east to attack the elite Iraqi Republican Guard, considered the most effective Iraqi fighting force. U.S. Marines and Arab forces pushed north from Saudi Arabia into Kuwait itself. After one hundred hours of combat, a cease-fire agreement was signed. By that time, Iraqi forces had been driven from Kuwait, some 80,000 Iraqi troops had surrendered, and 30,000 had been killed. (Initial estimates of 100,000 were seriously exaggerated.) During the ground war, Iraqi forces blew up nearly seven hundred Kuwaiti oil wells, setting fire to most of them and creating an unprecedented oil-field disaster.

When Iraq was forced to withdraw from Kuwait in 1991, it inflicted major damage on Kuwait’s oil industry—as well as the Persian Gulf environment—by setting fire to oil wells.

(U.S. Department of Defense Visual Information Center)

Oil dominates the politics and military strategy of the Middle East, and it played a key role in the events leading up to the Persian Gulf War. In 1980, Iraq launched an attack on neighboring Iran to gain control of the Shatt-al-Arab, the estuary at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This waterway between the two nations is Iraq’s only outlet to the sea. Most observers expected Iraq to defeat Iran handily, but Iran put up a stubborn resistance, and the war developed into a bloody stalemate that claimed an estimated 600,000 lives before a cease-fire was declared in 1988. Although Iraq has substantial oil reserves of its own (nearly twice those of Kuwait and half those of Saudi Arabia), the war plunged Iraq deeply into debt. Iraq’s total debt was $80 billion, including a debt of several billion dollars to Kuwait. In an effort to relieve its debt and increase its revenues, Iraq demanded that Kuwait cancel its debt and yield its portion of the Rumaila oil field on the Iraq-Kuwait border. Iraq also accused Kuwait of slant drilling—drilling wells that slanted beneath the border to tap oil inside Iraq—and demanded several billion dollars in repayments for oil removed from the field.

Many of the environmental hazards of war in the Persian Gulf had been identified and discussed during the Iran-Iraq War and during the military buildup prior to Desert Storm. The gulf itself is only about one hundred meters deep and is connected to the Indian Ocean only by the fifty-kilometer-wide Strait of Hormuz. Large oil spills in the gulf would endanger valuable commercial fisheries, many threatened species, including dugongs and flamingos, and fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs, mangroves, and delicate tidal flats.

Many of the coastal cities of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait obtain water through desalination of Persian Gulf water; in fact, the largest desalination plants in the world are on the Persian Gulf. Large oil spills would thus also endanger sources of drinking water. A sufficiently large spill might conceivably cover the entire gulf, depriving its waters of oxygen. The restricted circulation in the gulf would slow the dissipation of a large spill. Damage to oil wells on land could cover large areas with oil, and oil could contaminate groundwater, a vital concern in the water-poor Middle East. Large oil fires could generate enough smoke to have large-scale and unpredictable climatic effects.

The materials of war are also of environmental concern. The Iran-Iraq War saw the largest deployment of chemical weapons Chemical weapons Weapons;chemical on the battlefield since World War I. These chemical agents, although they consist of relatively simple molecules, have potential long-term health and ecological effects that are poorly understood. The potential effects of such weapons were of grave concern during the planning of Operation Desert Storm, but chemical weapons were not used during the war, possibly because of unfavorable weather conditions.

Although Iraq announced the annexation of Kuwait as a province of Iraq, the Iraqis’ occupation practices seemed to indicate that Iraq did not expect to be able to hold Kuwait. Iraqi troops either looted Kuwaiti technical equipment wholesale and removed it to Iraq or sabotaged it to render it unusable. Coalition planners thus took seriously the possibility that Iraq might destroy Kuwait’s oil facilities in retaliation for any military action against Iraq. In fact, as early as October, 1990, U.S. intelligence sources reported that Iraq had placed explosive charges on Kuwait’s oil wells.

The first act of environmental sabotage came shortly after the start of coalition bombing, when Iraq opened the valves of the Sea Island Oil Terminal on January 23, 1991, releasing about three million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf (twelve times the amount released by the Exxon Valdez tanker accident in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989). The spill would have been far larger had several Kuwaiti refinery workers not sabotaged a valve leading to a group of large storage tanks. The spill was largely halted on January 27, when coalition aircraft bombed the pumping facilities of the terminal and set fire to the oil slick.

By late January, about twenty wells in the Wafra oil field in southern Kuwait were burning, as a result of either deliberate destruction or battle damage. On February 17, as the coalition invasion of Kuwait became imminent, Iraqi forces began detonating explosive charges on the wells. Most wells were ignited, but some merely began spouting oil. Because the oil fields of Kuwait are naturally pressurized by natural gas, the oil kept flowing to the surface to feed the fires and growing lakes of oil on the ground. Bureaucratic problems kept the pace of firefighting slow until early summer, but once those problems were solved, the pace increased dramatically. Most of the oil firefighters in the world were represented in Kuwait, including teams from the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, and China. Although many published predictions asserted that extinguishing the well fires could take years, the last was extinguished on November 7, 1991, less than nine months after the wells were ignited.

Significance

Environmental warfare has been practiced much more often in history than is generally known. Even in premodern times, armies caused tremendous environmental damage. In the thirteenth century, Mongol armies destroyed the irrigation system of Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and so depopulated the region that the system, which had supported agriculture for thousands of years, was never restored. The destruction of the Shenandoah Valley and General William Sherman’s March to the Sea, both during the American Civil War, are other famous examples of military destruction of the environment.

The effects of war on the environment can be grouped into four categories. The first is collateral damage incidental to military operations; that is, there is no deliberate intent to cause damage to the environment, but damage occurs as a side effect of military action. Examples of collateral damage include rutting of the land by vehicle traffic, cratering by bombardment, and release of hazardous materials when military storage depots are attacked. A second category is intentional damage—triggering an environmental effect to cause damage to the enemy. For example, during World War I, Italian and Austrian troops in the Alps used artillery fire to trigger avalanches, killing thousands of soldiers.

A third category is modification, generally destruction, of the environment to render military action harder for the enemy or easier for one’s own side. In 1938, the Chinese breached the levees of the Yellow River (Huang He) in an attempt to slow the invading Japanese. The resulting floods drowned up to 500,000 civilians. In terms of loss of life, this may have been the worst act of environmental warfare in history. The defoliation of jungle in Vietnam by the United States during the 1960’s to deprive Vietnamese guerrilla forces of concealment is another example.

The fourth category, the most modern one, is environmental terrorism: threats to the environment to deter military action or destruction of the environment in retaliation for military action. In environmental terrorism, the targets have no significant military value of their own; rather, they are attacked in the hope that fear of environmental disaster will influence the enemy’s decisions or simply to degrade the quality of life for an otherwise victorious enemy. Environmental terrorism is modern for two reasons: The growth of military destructive capability has reached unprecedented levels, and only in recent decades has concern for the environment developed to the point that environmental terrorism stands as a credible weapon. The Sea Island oil spill and the burning of Kuwait’s oil wells were not the first, or even the worst, acts of environmental warfare, but they were the worst acts of environmental terrorism up to that time.

The mess created by the destruction of Kuwait’s oil wells is difficult to comprehend. Because of the location of Kuwait’s oil fields and the prevailing wind directions, Kuwait City was usually free of oil smoke. The town of al-Ahmadi, however, about thirty kilometers south of Kuwait City and situated between two oil fields, lay in nearly total darkness for months. Oil droplets and soot covered every exposed surface, and large areas of desert were plated with a crust of oil residue. About five million barrels of oil burned per day, about one-third of the total oil consumed daily by the United States. The total destroyed was about one-tenth of 1 percent of known world oil reserves.

Contrary to widespread misconception, the greatest problem in controlling a burning oil well is not extinguishing the fire but controlling the flow of oil afterward. Even worse than the burning wells in Kuwait were nonburning wells, which created oil lakes more than one kilometer across and one or more meters deep. Some oil was recovered from the oil lakes and oil spills in the Persian Gulf, and much evaporated, but the heavy residue fraction remained.

The oil smoke was regarded as a test of the “nuclear winter” scenario. In this hypothesis, smoke created by a nuclear war would trap solar heat high in the atmosphere, blocking sunlight and creating subfreezing conditions, even in the summer, for months. Near the fires, the smoke pall was capable of blocking sunlight completely and producing dramatic cooling beneath it, but the smoke pall did not rise high enough to create a true nuclear winter effect over large areas.

The long-term health effects of the smoke are uncertain. Some American troops who served in the Persian Gulf theater later reported puzzling symptoms of fatigue, joint aches, and general malaise. Various causes of these illnesses have been suggested, including exposure to oil smoke, exposure to residues from Iraqi chemical warfare, exposure to uranium used in antitank shells, and experimental immunizations against chemical and biological warfare. Despite widespread acknowledgment that the illnesses are real, and despite a number of epidemiological studies, the causes of the illnesses have proved elusive.

As bad as the environmental effects of the Gulf War were, they could have been far worse. Chemical weapons were a serious threat, but they were not used. Iraqi troops had laid pipelines to fill trenches along the border with oil and create fire obstacles; these also were not used. The oil wells were damaged at the surface; if the Iraqis had lowered explosives down the wells and detonated them below the surface, the oil would have been much harder to contain. Oil would have mixed with and contaminated groundwater, and many wells might have needed to be sealed with concrete and redrilled. Although mines were a hazard around some wells, they were not as numerous or as well hidden as was initially believed. Many of the worst predictions of disaster in the wake of the Persian Gulf War did not come to pass. The smoke pall did not have global or regional climatic effects as feared, and the vast Sea Island oil spill did not extinguish life in the Persian Gulf. Pollution;air Air pollution;smoke Disasters;oil fires Fires;Kuwait oil fields Ecological disasters Kuwait;oil field fires

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">BBC World Service, comp. Gulf Crisis Chronology. Harlow, England: Longman Current Affairs, 1991. Authoritative day-by-day chronology of events during the Persian Gulf War begins with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and ends with the cease-fire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Browning, K. A., et al. “Environmental Effects from Burning Oil Wells in Kuwait.” Nature 351 (May 30, 1991): 363-367. Moderately technical summary concludes that the oil fires had measurable local effects but were unlikely to have significant global effects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Canby, Thomas Y. “After the Storm.” National Geographic, August, 1991, 2-35. Presents a nontechnical, dramatically illustrated description of the aftermath of the Gulf War. Offers illustrative anecdotes rather than attempting a comprehensive overview.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garwin, Richard L., and Henry W. Kendall. “Quenching the Wild Wells of Kuwait.” Nature 354 (November 7, 1991): 11-14. Provides a simple description of the problems of extinguishing oil fires in Kuwait. Examines a variety of proposed techniques for clearing mines.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hawley, T. M. Against the Fires of Hell: The Environmental Disaster of the Gulf War. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992. Presents an assessment of the environmental damage during Operation Desert Storm. Focuses on the efforts of firefighters to extinguish the oil fires, effects of oil spills on the Persian Gulf, and possible health effects of the smoke.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hobbs, Peter V., and Lawrence F. Radke. “Airborne Studies of the Smoke from the Kuwait Oil Fires.” Science 256 (March 26, 1993): 987-991. Moderately technical article concludes that climatic effects of the oil fires were less pronounced than predicted in part because efficient combustion produced less soot than some nuclear winter models had assumed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horgan, John. “Burning Questions: Scientists Launch Studies of Kuwait’s Oil Fires.” Scientific American 265 (July, 1991): 17-22. Presents a nontechnical summary of some of the results of studies of the Kuwait oil fires. Sidebar discusses allegations that some environmental data had been censored or withheld.

Saddam Hussein Takes Power in Iraq

Saudi Arabia Establishes Gulf Cooperation Council

Iraq Uses Poison Gas Against Kurds

Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait

Persian Gulf War

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