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U.S. units ready if Iraq fires oil wells
Kelly Kurt
Associated Press
Mar. 9, 2003 12:00 AM

ELK CITY, Okla. - Ronnie Roles fought oil fires in Kuwait knowing that unexploded cluster bombs lay hidden in the desert sand. The smoke was so thick, noon turned to night. The fire burned so hot, an ordinary hard hat would have melted.

But for all the danger in Kuwait's burning oil fields 12 years ago, Roles said he fears the fires could be bigger, more numerous and far more risky if a cornered and desperate Saddam Hussein turned the torch on Iraq's oil fields, as his retreating troops did in Kuwait.

"We expect him to cause considerable more damage," said Roles, president of operations for Cudd Pressure Control, an Oklahoma company preparing for war from an office on the American prairie.

The Defense Department has asked the company for a plan detailing the number of personnel and equipment it could send to fight fires in Iraq, Roles said.

Two other U.S. companies that spent months bringing Kuwait's well fires under control, Wild Well Control and Boots & Coots International Well Control in Texas, also said they could be ready if needed.

Iraqis damaged or set fire to 788 oil wells in Kuwait in the closing days of the Persian Gulf War. Iraq is believed to have almost twice that number, about 1,500, Roles said.

The firefighters doubt all the wells would be burned, but the Iraqi fires could be bigger because there is more oil to feed the flames: Kuwait's wells pumped an average 20,000 to 40,000 barrels per day; Iraqi wells are capable of producing 60,000 to 80,000 barrels, said Bill Mahler, marketing manager at Wild Well Control.

Iraq's mountainous terrain and wetlands also could make the oil far more difficult to control than the sand berms used in Kuwait. Even if the wells are not set on fire, gushing oil could threaten water supplies.

"After seeing the first mess they made, there's no doubt in my mind they've got the ability to make a big or bigger mess in their own back yard," said Jerry Winchester, Boots & Coots president and chief operating officer.

Then there's simply Iraq's size - "the difference between Houston and all of Texas," Mahler said - hampering crews' ability to reach wells quickly.

In Kuwait, most of the damage came at the well heads. But Roles said Iraq could set explosives deeper this time, damaging well casings. Fires that took 2 1/2 days to extinguish in Kuwait could take months, Roles said.

"The overall project could run years longer," he added.

The companies are not even sure where to find enough water to fight the flames.

In Kuwait, water was pumped to burning wells from the Persian Gulf by reversing the flow in the oil pipelines. But with the sale of Iraqi oil critical to that country's economic recovery, the pipelines there might be needed to keep oil flowing to the market, Mahler said.

Water from the Euphrates River is a possibility, but Mahler said, "It's not going to be as readily available as in Kuwait."

Security is one of their biggest worries.

Booby traps, biological and chemical weapons and the potential that some wells hold hydrogen sulfide, a deadly byproduct of oil production, are all dangers Roles said his personnel could face.

But Robert Ebel, director of energy programs for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has a different point of view. He said he isn't convinced Iraqi oil workers would follow orders to blow up oil wells if they knew Saddam was about to be toppled.

"It's one thing to blow up the wells of another country," Ebel said. "It's another thing to blow up your own wells."

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