Thursday, reports from Iraq indicated that Saddam Hussein's forces may have set fire to oil wells in southern Iraq. It wouldn't be the first time Hussein has attempted to sabotage oil resources. At the end of the Gulf War, Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait set fire to over 600 of the country's oil wells. Shot on location in Kuwait after the country's liberation in 1991, the Academy Award-winning "Fires of Kuwait" is a visual chronicle of the men and women who extinguished and controlled the fires.
"Fires of Kuwait" Director David Douglas was online Friday, March 21, to discuss his first-hand experience at the scene of the 1991 Kuwait oil field fires.
The transcript follows.
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washingtonpost.com: Good evening, David, and thanks for joining us. It's been reported today that U.S. troops seized the Ramailah oil field near Basra. How much damage do you think was avoided by getting these fields, which represent about 14 percent of the country's reserves, locked down at this point?
David Douglas: I'm sure that every time they secure a well and ascertain that it is not mined, that it's a tremendous benefit. You don't have the capacity to damage the well by setting it alight; you have the capacity to damage the reservoir beneath.
What's so valuable about the oil fields in the Middle East is that the oil delivers itself to the surface. Imagine there's a geological mechanism called water drive in those fields, and that is a very efficient delivery system that forces the oil up the bore, so you get good recovery of the oil that's in the ground, and you don't want to waste that drive. So absolutely -- every time they secure another field, it's a victory for everyone in the world.
Arlington, Va.: How did it happen that you were on the scene to film "Fires of Kuwait" in 1991?
David Douglas: We were making a film about the interdependence of plant and animal species around the world -- an entirely different film. And one of the sequences in that film called for a demonstration of what air pollution really was. The producers, Chris Parsons and Di Roberts, somehow managed to get permission for us to get into Kuwait during the firefighting campaign. Di Roberts and I had an inkling that we might be able to do more than just a sequence on air pollution for this other documentary, and we began to put together the wherewithal so that in the event it was a more compelling situation than we'd thought, we'd be able to do more.
So it was a Hail Mary.
Arlington, Va.: When oil well fires are encountered, are they extinguished? And if so, how?
David Douglas: The type of fire you face depends on what the gas-to-oil mixture in the well is. Some wells are deep wells and they're just burning gas. And they burn much more cleanly, but they're quite hard to control. The oil wells burn dirty -- the combustion of the oil is not complete the heavier the oil is, so you get more deposit on the ground around the well. In the case of Kuwait, of course, some of those wells were burning for seven, eight, nine months -- and the unburned part of that oil produced mountains of hard compound called coke covering the wellhead and the immediate area. That was the first time that condition had been faced, because normally oil wells are not allowed to burn that long. Hopefully in Iraq, if wells are detonated they will be dealt with quickly.
Another thing that happens with a well which for whatever reason burns for months is that it super-heats the ground and its immediate vicinity to a temperature that makes its own reignition inevitable if it is extinguished. For example, if you turned on your barbecue on for three months, and if the wind blew the flame out, there'd still be enough heat there to reignite with. The thing about an oil well fire is that when it's burning, you know it's not going to get any worse. But when you have people in close around the well who have put the fire out, reignition is the thing that can kill those people.
So for the crews who will be working on these fires, putting out the fires will be the easy part, difficult as that is. Keeping the fire out will be the difficult part -- because you've got the superheated ground and this rainstorm of oil and gas raining down on it.
Washington, D.C.: Do you know if we planned to deal with oil fires this time around any differently than we did with the Kuwaiti oil fires during the Gulf War?
David Douglas: I have no knowledge of specific plans for the approach to these wells. There are some facts that should make these wells easier to address quickly, the most important of which is the position of all the firefighting equipment that was taken to fight the fires in Kuwait. That equipment was bought and paid for by the Kuwait Oil Company and remained in Kuwait at the end of the firefighting campaign. So it's right there on the scene. The Kuwaitis had to airlift all these Caterpillar tractors and machines from the States last time. So that won't have to be done this time.
Washington, D.C.: Did you find President Bush's plea to Iraqi soldiers not to torch the oil wells a sign that we're really after the oil?
David Douglas: I don't have a divining rod for the motivations of the White House. I think it's a natural reaction of any human being to look upon the kind of waste and degradation of the environment that follows this kind of thing. The same way he's [Saddam Hussein] been told not to use weapons of mass destruction against our people or his own, oil fires are a weapon of mass destruction for the environment. I don't think the two things are as closely related, perhaps, as other people may feel. I would have thought that Saddam would have viewed the ignition of the oil fields in Kuwait was a waste of time and energy on his part, because it united the world's view against him and showed him as a person whose values and judgment as something we don't understand.
Washington, D.C.: How do the Iraqi oil fields and the Kuwaiti oil fields compare? If the Iraqi oil fields were to be set ablaze, would it be as bad or worse than the Kuwait fires?
David Douglas: I'm afraid I'm not an expert on the Iraqi oil fields. All I can say is that I think that some of the fields in Kuwait are some of the older fields in the world, and thus the wells were drilled quite close together. The Burgan Complex (the field just outside Kuwait City) has wells that are sometimes less than a quarter of a mile apart -- and having wells so close together made it hard to approach the whole situation. And it produced a tremendous concentration of unburned hydrocarbons, etc. It also produced a spectacular backdrop for photography. And because they were so close together, it also produced the images that people think of when they imagine what might happen in Iraq.
My limited understanding of Iraq's oil fields is that they're more dispersed and less developed oil fields in general, and so hopefully that should make control of the wells a little more predictable.
Wheaton, Md.: Would you consider what Hussein did in Kuwait in 1991 to be the biggest deliberate attack on the environment by anyone? Should we be preparing for more of the same?
David Douglas: Yes. You'd have to ask Saddam what was in his mind in terms of the motivation for that event. Whatever the motivation the result was a tremendous environmental degradation.
At the height of the event in Kuwait, it was about equal to the addition of another United States into the world in terms of total tonnage of particulates and pollutants it was putting out into the atmosphere.
Arlington, Va.: Can you talk about the long-term environmental effects of burning oil wells?
David Douglas: In my research when we began to write the script for the film, we found indeed that oil fires are not new to that part of the world -- especially to that area. Oil seepages have managed to get themselves lit one way or another for thousands of years that we know of -- and some have burned for hundreds of years and became metaphysical cultural icons -- they were thought to be manifestations of God or God -- the burning bush and all that. There are one or two mentions in old writings of temples which surround "eternal flames." And clearly, this is entirely possible. In fact, the likelihood is that's what happened.
One interesting sideline that came up: Kuwait has become the modern test tube for environmental damage of this type. In the years since the fires were extinguished in Kuwait, a great deal has been learned about how fast oil migrates down to the water table, and how much the water carries it around and moves it around under the ground. Certainly, the surface damage that we can see is in many ways the easiest to mitigate. Trees can be replanted. The crust on the surface can be broken up. Even in the final days when we were there we were already seeing the tracks of the ants bringing the sand up over the oil deposits. And as I said earlier, with these seepages -- oil has been part of the environment for a long time. The environment will have mechanisms we don't know or understand to deal with it; the earth is far more complex than we give it credit for being. This doesn't begin to approach things like nuclear waste. Oil is a natural product which is part of our natural environment.
Martins Creek, Pa.: How long will it take to put the oil well fires out? Are the well rendered useless after set ablaze?
David Douglas: No. Any well can be recovered to some extent. It's not easy to blow up an oil well. It takes a lot of work. You've got to get your C4 or whatever you'll use to the wellhead. In Kuwait, the C4 was packed almost on top of the valve structure; it was a big job. I think the estimates for how long it took Saddam's people to mine the oil wells -- it was a months-long operation. So when they shot those wells off, they shot them in groups. They were observed by Kuwaiti resistance and some engineers who were keeping an eye on the wells even under occupation. So they blew the structures up -- they didn't want to dig very far, I guess. Had they decided to dig down beneath the phalanges, which those valve structures were bolted to, that would have made the wells far more difficult to control. All they had to do was cut the old structures off and bolt new valve structures on to the top. If you have to dig down 10 feet and put on a new phalange and figure out how to put out the fire that way, you've got a much bigger problem to deal with.
So the answer is yes, the wells can be recovered -- the sooner the better, because the damage to the oil field is the reservoir underneath. You want to box in all that pressure again and get it under control.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Residents refuse to confirm if Iraq is burning oil fields for fear their calls are being monitored. Shouldn't it be possible to monitor this visually? How close need one get to verify if oil fields are afire?
David Douglas: We've seen very nice pictures from Kuwait from orbit of oil fields burning. We know we can confirm it from aircraft; we don't even need people to be on the ground. You can do it at night, and you can do it in any weather -- there's such a specific heat signature to burning oil. We're not going to need those calls, and they're not going to come from Iraq. The engineers in Kuwait were watching which wells were being mined and when they went to blow them, they called in the information. Very few wells that were mined were left untriggered.
If these Iraqi wells had been mined, it would have had to have been going on for quite a while now. It would be very difficult to get started now and to get many of them to go off.
David Douglas: If you were to be generous to the Iraqi military, you might say they were using the oil fields as a defensive measure to mitigate the attacks. They might say it created a defensive cover for them to fight underneath, perhaps to retreat underneath. On the other hand, it's a pretty poor performance in terms of what they got out of it. And in fact, I don't know who made the pitch to Saddam that this would be a great idea, but they spent a good deal of time moving pipelines to pump oil directly into the sea as a defensive measure to light the sea on fire in the face of a landing in Kuwait. Clearly military thinking was involved in terms of using oil as a weapon.
Oil is difficult to light unless it's heated up. The longer it sits there (in trenches this time), the less flammable it becomes, because its most volatile elements will be off-gassing as it sits there.
Washington, D.C.: Why do you think there have been so few oil fields set on fire considering Hussein's promise to set them aflame if we entered Iraq?
David Douglas: I think if the Iraqi military had considered their use of oil field damage in Kuwait as being a successful tactic, then they would have employed it. I don't think it was very successful, and I think they understand that.
Cleveland, Ohio: What do you think about the U.S. Gulf War veterans who are coming out and saying that these fires were set by them and not by the Iraqis?
David Douglas: I haven't heard that one; I am aware of a story which I give a fair amount of credence to in regards to oil and a miscue in terms of who was doing what. Early in the war there was an alarm that went out that Saddam was somehow flooding the Gulf with oil, and everyone began to realize the potential scope of an ecological event related to this. As it transpired it became clear to me from talking to Kuwaiti engineers that it was actually the result of coalition bombs breaking up a very large volume oil manifold close to the shore. And the result of that was this same discharge of oil, which had been assigned to Saddam's lack of environmental sensitivity.
Silver Spring, Md.: Have there been any investigations into whether the burning oil fields could have caused Gulf War Syndrome?
David Douglas: All I can say is for myself and my crew, none of us have had any long-term ill effects that we've notice. We were in close with the firefighters the whole time. None of the firefighters have had any ill effects, and I've kept in touch with at least one of the companies. They were very close to the wells for months.
I just don't see it as being an element which could produce long-term effects on a large number of people who were somewhere far away. There were fairly steady winds blowing that year to the northeast. And you really had to be downwind to encounter any effects of the burning oil.
So it was very easy to stay out of that flow, because you knew where it was going; you just had to stay upwind. So my guess is that Gulf War Syndrome, whatever it turns out to be, will be attributed to something other than that.
Washington, D.C.: Will your movie be playing in D.C. again soon? I have been waiting 10 years for it to come back.
David Douglas: All I can say is that if people in D.C. want to see it, they should call the National Air & Space Museum and ask when they're bringing it back.
I do think I saw a little blurb about the Virginia Air & Space Center where it's playing. I think I saw on the Web that it's one of the films in their lineup.
washingtonpost.com: That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.