KUWAIT CITY — It may take a year or longer to extinguish about 550 Kuwaiti oil wells fire-bombed or damaged by retreating Iraqi troops, and five years before the country's devastated oil export production facilities are fully restored, stunned U.S. and Kuwaiti experts said Tuesday.
Petroleum engineers getting their first close-up look at the disaster estimate that the wells are burning 6 million barrels of oil a day, or three times Kuwait's daily production before the Iraqi invasion last Aug. 2.
"At $20 a barrel, that's $120 million a day going up in smoke," said Steve Johnson, an Evergreen Air official who flew over the oil fields Tuesday. "It looks like a holocaust."
Another 250 wells are either spewing oil high into the air, or are otherwise damaged, hemorrhaging millions more barrels. Numerous other wells are booby-trapped with C-4 plastic explosive charges, and several oil fields have been mined. Kuwait has 1,080 oil wells.
Ahmed Murad, a manager at the state-run Kuwait Oil Co., estimated that 10% to 15% of Kuwait's 94 billion barrels in proven reserves may be lost before the fires are extinguished and the wells capped.
The unprecedented destruction also could permanently affect Kuwait's oil production and prices, since the uncontrolled release of so much oil is likely to suck sand and water into the country's relatively pure, vast underground oil reservoirs.
As thick black smoke, including toxic fumes, poured from the hellish inferno of wellhead fires, a black rain poured down all day here from eerily darkened skies, staining cars and concrete alike, and the temperature was far colder than normal.
Murad, who is helping direct firefighting and reconstruction efforts, said the fires could cause "catastrophic atmospheric changes" affecting climate and agriculture as far away as India.
"It's a calamity for all mankind," he said.
Other scientists say the fires are not likely to affect India's monsoon season or disturb the climate outside the Gulf region because the smoke is rising to only 12,000 feet, not high enough to get into the stratosphere, the upper layer of the atmosphere.
But black rain has reportedly fallen as far away as southern Turkey, about 600 miles from here, and soot clouds have darkened the skies over Qatar and Bahrain.
Richard Small, a director for Pacific-Sierra Research Corp. in Los Angeles, said in a report for the Pentagon in January that he did not believe the smoke would create climatic upheavals. He cautioned in an interview, however, that there has been no comparable event from which scientists can draw conclusions.
Dane Konop, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, said public health experts believe that people caught under the moving soot clouds should take precautions. Sulfur dioxide emitted by the fires can cause a variety of ailments, including breathing difficulties. Children, the elderly and the infirm are most at risk.
The Iraqis exploded demolition charges at virtually every Kuwaiti wellhead and oil storage facility on Feb. 16. They also destroyed pipelines, pumping stations and more than half the country's 26 oil-gathering complexes.
"It's beyond imagination," said Saud Nashimi, a Kuwaiti who will head the international firefighting effort. "It's much worse than we thought."
Four firefighting teams--Red Adair Co., Boots & Coots, Wild Well Control Inc., all from Texas, and Safety Boss, a Canadian firm--said they cannot begin work until unexploded bombs and mines are cleared. And, they said, it will take 30 to 60 days before enough bulldozers, cranes, high-pressure hoses, pipes and other equipment arrive in sufficient quantities.
Konop said all but 60 of the wells now aflame will eventually burn themselves out, and the rest will have to be extinguished.
But Murad said initial surveys suggest about 75% of the fires can be extinguished using explosive charges, and the wells can then be capped. Each would cost up to $1 million to handle.
The other wells, some of them 8,000 feet deep, will require the drilling of a separate well at an angle, called "directional drilling." Concrete mud is then pumped into the underground reservoir to plug the damaged well and extinguish the fire. This technique will cost $3 million to $6 million per well.
Murad said it may take more than a year before the worst fires are extinguished, and at least that long before Kuwait can again export oil. Resuming full export production of 1.5 million barrels a day could take five years, he added.
"That's being optimistic," he said. "Inshallah " (God willing).
He said damage to the underground reserves by infiltration of sand and water could increase production costs by 400%. He said initial efforts will focus on oil fields in southeast and western Kuwait. Those in the north, closest to Iraq, will be the last to be capped.