Saturday, October 31, 2015

Onshore oil field fires . . . in history

Large onshore oil field fire disasters are not fiction (last post on cinematic onshore oil field fires): two historical occurrences in the 20th century are Baku (1905) and Kuwait (1991).

BAKU 1905 
In 1905, the world center of petroleum production was the city of Baku on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, then part of imperial Russia, now in the nation of Azerbaijan. Seeps of both oil and natural gas made the area a petroleum center since ancient times. In 1846, the first mechanical well was drilled, but major development did not occur until 1871-72 ( Foreign investment, particularly from the Nobel and Rothschild families, expanded not only production and refining but critical transportation networks and market share. (A good synopsis of this modern era development of the petroleum industry in Baku can be found in Daniel Yergin’s 1990 history, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, pages 57-63, 129-133).

Conditions at both the oil fields and the refinery suburb of Black City were sooty, smoky and polluted. Out-of-control gushers were frequent, and associated well fires were common: an 1896 Lumière Brothers’ short (36 seconds) film, The Oil Wells of Baku: Close View, provides a glimpse of closely-spaced derricks including three burning wells in the background (Murray and Heumann, 2009:;

However, besides being a world center of the petroleum industry, Baku was also a focus of early Communist/revolutionary labor agitation, a training ground for young Stalin, and site of underground party publications that surreptitiously used oil transport lines out of Baku for distribution. Within the Russian empire in the early years of the 20th century, political unrest and major labor strikes, including in the oil industry, culminated in the Revolution of 1905, a precursor to the Revolution of 1917. In Baku, over several months in 1905, strikes disintegrated into ethnic violence between Christian Armenians and Tartars (Azerbaijani Muslims).

In September/October 1905, the fighting, and rampant slaughter, included setting fire to oil fields, refineries and storage facilities. Transportation and communications were also cut. The inferno was compared to Hell and Pompeii (Yergin, p. 131). This was the headline for an Associated Press article in the Los Angeles Herald on September 7, 1905:  

"Two-thirds of all the oil wells had been destroyed and exports had collapsed" (Yergin, p.131). Continued labor strikes and violence, along with reckless overproduction, sent the oil industry in Baku into decline, losing its global pre-eminence.

In recent conscious memory for many of us are the Kuwait oil fires of 1991 at the end of the first Gulf War. The armed conflict began August 2, 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and installed a provisional government (NY Times, August 3, 1990). Iraq "complained Kuwait was overproducing oil in order to undermine the Iraqi economy and that Kuwait stole 2.4 billion barrels of oil [through directional drilling] from South Rumailah field on the border." (Patrick Crow, Oil and Gas Journal, August 6, 1990). In Operation Desert Shield (August 7, 1990- January 17, 1991), troops were defensively deployed to Saudi Arabia by a US-led Coalition of 34 nations. Operation Desert Storm, the combat phase, began January 17, 1991, with naval and air strikes against Iraqi forces; a land invasion of Kuwait, and southern Iraq, lasted from February 24-28, ending with the withdrawal and surrender of Iraq.

A detailed timeline of the scorched earth policy of Iraq to destroy Kuwait’s petroleum industry can be found at GulfLINK, a US government website providing background information, particularly related to health issues, for Gulf War veterans ( This destructive plan was developed soon after the August 1990 invasion in response to probable (and eventual) confrontation with Coalition forces.

Oil field destruction began soon after the beginning of the Coalition air war.  On January 23, 1991, the Associated Press reported that "Iraq had blown up oil wells and storage tanks at the Al-Wafra oil field on Kuwait's border with Saudi Arabia"; storage tanks at Shuaiba and Mina Abdullah refineries were also ablaze. Oil well demolition progressed from south to north and peaked just before and during the short land combat phase in late February. Besides the goal of destroying Kuwait’s petroleum infrastructure, fire and smoky conditions were seen to be a defensive move to impede Coalition air and ground forces. The exact number of wells set on fire (605-650), “flowing uncontrollably” (80-100) (NY Times, April 8, 1991), or otherwise damaged out of 850-980 operational wells varies*.  Sadiq and McCain (1993, p. 60) report about 6 million barrels of oil burned per day with just over 1 billion barrels of oil lost.

"Oil well fires rage outside Kuwait City in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm. The wells were set on fire by Iraqi forces before they were ousted from the region by coalition force." (Tech. Sgt. David McLeod, 21 March 1991,, VIRIN)
"In images which shocked the world, this view from Landsat 5 reveals the destructive extent of human activity on our planet: Saddam Hussein’s burning of Kuwaiti oilfields during the 1991 Gulf War. Image Credit: NASA/Department of the Interior/US Geological Survey" (
There were dire predictions that the massive production of soot and smoke would result in a "nuclear winter", cooling the earth due to injection of particulates into the stratosphere. However, that did not come to pass (, under the heading “Kuwait wells in the first Gulf War”). El-Baz (1992) wrote that particles were both too heavy to rise into the stratosphere and were redistributed by regional winds (maps of “super plume” in El-Baz (1992) and Poonian (2003)).

The order of post-war industry recovery priorities were 1) extinguish fires, 2) restore refineries, 3) return to export level petroleum production (Oil and Gas Journal (OGJ), March 4, 1991). Initial estimates (OGJ, March 4, 1991) were that it would take 4 years for five US "wild well control companies" to extinguish all the fires. By April, the estimate had fallen to 18 months to 2 years (NY Times, April 9, 1991). However, Kuwait Oil Company started to consider bringing in non-US contractors. Adding more fire-fighting teams to the effort, for a total of 27 (El-Baz, 1992), successfully shortened that time, and by November 6, 1991, all well fires were extinguished and capped. 
“Canadian firefighters in Kuwait battle to seal an oil well. (Credit: Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas Images/nbpictures ©Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas Images/nbpictures)” 
Long-term effects are both commercial and environmental. Uncontrolled flow from uncapped wells caused water buoyantly underlying oil in these conventional reservoirs to "leapfrog" the oil/water contact and mix in with the oil (see anticlinal trap diagram, last post). (This water surge actually extinguished a few of the well fires when it became a major portion of the wellhead flow). The New York Times (April 8, 1991) reported that the natural water drive pressure was also diminished by this uncontrolled flow so that more expensive pumping techniques would later be required. In the Burgan field, the second largest in the world, wells lower on the dome structure were abandoned and horizontal drilling has been done parallel to reservoir boundaries to expose more of the producing formations (

Large lakes of oil collected around damaged wells, sometimes also on fire, hindering access to wells and producing the sootiest smoke. NASA reported that 5% of Kuwait is covered with “tarcrete”, a combination of sand, gravel, oil and soot (Time Magazine, May 3, 2010). There is continuing concern about groundwater contamination from these land spills. Damage to the desert landscape also included destruction of desert pavement by military vehicles and construction followed by enhanced wind erosion.

Iraqi forces also released oil into the Gulf, primarily from the Sea Island terminal for the intention of thwarting a Coalition marine landing; it is one of history's largest oil spills. Reported numbers on the size of the spill varies from 2-11 million barrels (compare to Deepwater Horizon volume of 4.9 million barrels, and other historic marine spills listed in May blogpost); the affected shoreline is the western shore of the Persian Gulf, primarily Saudi Arabia. A detailed literature review of the effect of the spill, and oil fire smoke, on marine and coastal habitats, including those which have recovered and those which still contain significant amounts of oil can be found in Poonian (1993:

*Varying reported numbers of Kuwait oil field well damage:
>500 on fire, 80-100 "flowing uncontrollably" (NYTimes, April 8, 1991)
940 total wells in Kuwait at the time, 732 set ablaze or damaged (AP, 11/1/91)
640 fires (AP 11/4/91)
732 “exploded” (includes resulting burning/gushing/damaged wells; El-Baz, 1992)
1,111 total wells in Kuwait in 1990, but only 980 in production; additionally 350 operating wells (out of 900) in Wafra (Kuwait/Saudi joint production in Neutral Zone)
854 total wells, 605 burning, 46 gushing, 108 damaged; US Army Environmental Hygiene Agency, based on satellite data, in Table 4
943 total wells, 613 burning, 76 gushing, 99 damaged; Kuwait Oil Company in Table 2, Tawfiq, N.I., "Response by Saudi Arabia to the Environmental Crisis Caused by the Gulf War," The Environmental and Health Impact of the Kuwait Oil Fires, eds. Al-Shatti, A.K.S., and J.M. Harrington, Proceedings of an International Symposium Held at the University of Birmingham, October 1991, p. 41.
Table 3.1 (page 67) in Sadiq and McCain (1993) summarizes 23 estimates of burning/gushing/damaged wells.

Some detailed citations:
El-Baz, Farouk, 1992, The war for oil: Effects on land, air, and sea: Geotimes, p. 12-15.
Murray, R. L. and Heumann, J. K., 2009, Ecology and popular film (Ch. 1: Ecology and spectacle in Oil Wells of Baku: Close View): State University of New York Press, Albany, SUNY Series, Horizons of Cinema, p. 19-26.
Poonian, C., 2003, The effects of the 1991 First Gulf War on the marine and coastal environment of the Arabian Gulf: Impact, recovery, and future prospects, 44 pages ( ).
Sadiq, M. & McCain, J.C. (1993) The Gulf War Aftermath, an environmental tragedy. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Boston, Massachusetts.

P.S. There is a middle-school or adolescent level book, Kuwaiti Oil Fires, by Kristine Hirschmann (2005, Facts on File Science Library) available from Amazon, but while historical facts may be accurate, the science does not appear to be reviewed by a geologist, or especially a petroleum geologist. The author, for example, calls the drill hole or borehole of an oil well a "pipeline", among other scientific or technical inaccuracies, so I do not recommend it as a reference.

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