Putting out oil fires and capping the wells is one of the world's more exotic professions, demanding patience, experience and a cold willingness to improvise solutions from a menu of low-tech options that are the antithesis of cute.
The target is a column of evil-smelling flame and black smoke hurtling hundreds of feet into the air at temperatures approaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Approach it without a curtain of water to protect you, and your hard hat will melt on your head.
What to do? There is the water jet -- 6,000 gallons per minute to drown the fire. Or drop a 40-foot portable chimney over the column and smother the fire by squirting carbon dioxide or foam at the bottom of the tube. Or dangle an oil drum filled with dynamite over the fire and set it off, blowing the fire out in an instant. Or let the fire burn until the new valves are in place, then simply shut off the oil flow.
Now those techniques are to be put to the test in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday in a CNN interview that the United States has "people coming in the next 48 hours" to extinguish nine burning wells in southern Iraq, an area now controlled by allied forces. The effort is to be managed by Kellogg, Brown & Root International Inc., a division of Houston-based Halliburton Co., which was headed by Vice President Cheney, its chairman and chief executive, before the 2000 presidential campaign.
The Pentagon previously has said there were at least five more wells that have been set afire in the northern Kirkuk region, although the Central Command in Kuwait said yesterday that it knows of no oil well fires in northern Iraq, an area that is not in allied control. Even with Rumsfeld's acknowledgement that an attempt will be made to control the nine burning wells, out of 500 in the Rumaila region, the Pentagon declined to release its plan to extinguish the fires.
Meanwhile, firefighting teams from Houston-based Boots & Coots International Well Control Inc., a Halliburton subcontractor, are poised to cross the border from Kuwait to cap the wells.
Boots & Coots prefers water or explosives to extinguish fires, but has no problem capping the wells with the fire still burning, if necessary, chief executive Jerry L. Winchester said. "You do what the well dictates," he said. Winchester would not confirm that Boots & Coots has the contract to work in Iraq, but reporters spotted company personnel waiting in Kuwait.
Typically, firms are paid by the day, $40,000 to $50,000, and it takes a few days to a few weeks to cap a well.
Halliburton said the group fighting an oil well fire typically would have five firefighters, but also 15 to 20 people working behind the scenes and operating bulldozers, backhoes, pump trucks, water monitors and vacuum trucks, Halliburton said.
"Typically, the team also would include a client representative who is responsible for the well and would be able to provide valuable data, such as depth, product amount and details of the structure," Halliburton said yesterday, but it was unclear whether that would be possible in a war zone.
Boots & Coots may be all alone working in Iraq, but other companies could get a call if Saddam Hussein's government were to torch large numbers of Kirkuk wells.
In 1991, retreating Iraqi soldiers set fire to about 750 wells in Kuwait, creating a catastrophic conflagration that took months to overcome. Avoiding a similar debacle in Iraq, which has 1,500 to 2,000 wells, is a top Pentagon priority.
Kuwait became a showcase for the firefighters, a romantic lot whose exploits had already been immortalized in the 1968 John Wayne movie "Hellfighters," about the life of the legendary Red Adair.
The relative few well fires in Iraq has contributed to the sharp drop in the price of oil since the start of the war, easing the pre-war fears of oil industry experts that Saddam Hussein would torch the vast Iraqi oil reserves. Trading in oil futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange was to open today at $26.91 a barrel, down from the upper $30s less than two weeks ago. In early trading, U.S. light crude oil rose 34 cents a barrel to $27.25.
"The assumption is that Iraqi oil [again] will be available in a few weeks" after the war ends, said John Lichtblau, chairman of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation in New York. Before the war, Iraq was producing about 2.5 million barrels of crude a daily, of which 80 percent was exported.
Nonetheless, extinguishing Iraqi well fires presents different challenges than the Kuwait fires did, the firefighters say. The wells are located in different regions of the country and spread over hundreds of square miles, making the logistics difficult. Different kinds of terrain, such as swamps in the south and mountains in the north, require more elaborate setup procedures than does the Kuwaiti desert.
Bill Mahler, marketing manager of Houston-based Wild Well Control Inc., another Halliburton subcontractor, said the Kirkuk wells have poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas in them. "You want the wells to be burning, because the hydrogen sulfide changes to sulfur dioxide and dissipates," Mahler said. "The wells need to be ignited, and our troops need to stay away from them if they're not."
Mahler and others pointed out that fire can be the firefighters' best friend. It not only renders harmless the hydrogen sulfide, but it also burns off natural gas that could reignite, with potentially disastrous consequences.
"And if you're in an area where you want to minimize the pollution, you let the fire burn," Winchester said. Put out the fire and leave the well uncapped, and "you'll have 30,000 or 40,000 barrels of oil on the ground every day."
Since "the well is at its most dangerous when it's not burning," Winchester said, the trick is to put out the fire and cap the well all at once. To do this, the various companies have developed proprietary equipment, which usually starts with a Rube Goldberg-style machine that clears debris from the burning wellhead so the team can see whether the protruding head flange is intact.
If it is, the team will place a "capping assembly" weighing hundreds of pounds atop the gushing pipe, dangling it from a crane until it seats. "This is almost automatic," said Les Skinner, director of well control for Cudd Pressure Control Inc., also a Houston firm. "The flow creates a vacuum around the outflow, so when you lower the valve assembly it gets sucked right into place."
If the wellhead is destroyed, the team will saw off the top of the gushing pipe with a water "jet cutter" held by the Rube Goldberg apparatus, and the capping assembly will be dropped over the naked pipe and clipped or welded into place.
When it comes time to put out the fires, the teams have several options. Calgary, Canada-based Safety Boss Inc. smothers them with 3,000 pounds of foam sprayed from a nozzle. Boots & Coots uses the water jets that spray 6,000 gallons per minute.
Cudd has a "whole bag of tricks," Skinner said. If the firefighters rig a chimney over the gusher, they can fill it from below with carbon dioxide, dry powder, foam or gel, all of which will smother the flames instantly.
Skinner also likes to use potassium bicarbonate, a fire retardant known familiarly as Purple K. "We take a thousand-pound bag of it, dangle it in the flames and blow it up with four or five pounds of C-4," he said, referring to the plastic explosive.
If water does not do the job, Boots & Coots and Wild Wells use high explosive: "Fill up an oil drum with dynamite or C-4, back it into the fire on a wire, then set it off," Winchester said. The explosion sucks up all the oxygen and extinguishes the fire in a single spectacular bang.
And finally, Mahler said, you may be able to forget all the fancy stuff if you can seat the valve assembly while the fire still burns. The top two valves are "blowout preventers" with hydraulic rams, so "you run fluid through the valves until the rams close," Mahler said. It's just like shutting off the nozzle on a garden hose.
Staff writer Kenneth Bredemeier contributed to this report.