Oil Well
Fires & Spills 
Linda Snider  sniderll@uwec.edu


Part of Iraq & Our Energy Future, by students of
Geography 378 (International Environmental Problems & Policy)
at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, USA, Spring 2003.


Oil Well Fires and Spills in the 1991 Gulf War

When Iraq’s forces began retreating from Kuwait in February 1991, they set Kuwaiti oil wells on fire, creating thick blankets of black smoke and lakes of oil. There were 600 to 750 oil well fires. Approximately 5 million barrels of crude oil burned per day from these oil well fires. Soon the smoke blanketed the sun and darkness came. Oil well fires create health hazards because the smoke contains many ingredients such as soot, liquid, aerosols, mercury, sulfur, nitrogen, dioxins, and furans. The particles can be carried by the wind, affecting other countries in the region.
About 8,000,000 million barrels of crude oil was purposely spilled into the Persian Gulf, creating an environmental hazard to marine life and birds. Approximately 20,000 birds died. A 12-inch thick oil slick was created and covered an esimated 400 miles of shoreline. Only a very small portion of the oil was recovered, about a million barrels of oil. The oil slick threatened the desalinization plant at Jubayl, Saudia Arabia. Booms and skimming operations were launched to protect the plant.

Aerial photo and Satellite image of 1991 fires

Iraq Satellite Image Gallery


Oil Trench Fires 2003

Trench fire just outside Baghdad, 2003


The oil fires in 2003 were few in number, compared to 1991. Only seven oil wells were set on fire by Iraqi forces in the opening hours of the war. There are still health hazards from the smoke because of the ingredients in the smoke. Saddam filled trenches with oil and set them on fire in order to block laser-guided missiles from reaching their targets through the smoke. The trench fires have cause air pollution and soil contamination.

The air pollution from the trench burning oil has cause serious health problems. The estimates are in the thousands of possible deaths as people breathe in tiny particles that enter the lungs. The people at greatest risk are those with respiratory problems. Certain particles are known to cause cancer. The particles are called "polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)" and "PM10s." (BBC News) The oil fire smoke contains "contaminants such as sulphur, mercury, dioxins and furans." (BCC News) The soil contamination that comes from oil well fires and spills seeps into the ground resulting in ground water pollution or contamination. The pollution has affected the ecosystem destroying fragile desert regions.


Pollutants from burnt crude oil (wells or trenches) depends on the mixture and type of crude oil. The crude oil could contain "hydrogen sulphide (H2S), water and/or natural gas, and the presence of naturally occurring radioactivity, especially dissolved radon isotopes as products of the natural uranium decay series" (Desk Study on the Environment in Iraq).

The "Desk Study on the Environment in Iraq" lists the following contaminates:

• Extreme heat
• Carbon monoxide
• Unburned hydrocarbons
• Poly aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
• Polychlorinated-dibenzo-dioxins and furans
• Carbon soot
• Oxides of sulphur
• Oxides of nitrogen
• Carbon dioxide
• Radon

The extreme heat and carbon monoxide causes immediate death. The rest of the list causes chronic problems over a period of time.

Some of the oil wells have been started again to pump oil to aid in the recovery of Iraq.
Satellite images of the 2003 fires can be seen in the image below.The red dots are the oil well fires.

NOAA 2003 Iraq oil well fires




    Putting Out Oil Well Fires

    Well Fire Specialists (firefighters) can earn $1000 a day putting out fires in times of catastrophices and post-war situations. The firefighters must create holding ponds of water that come from the gulf or one of the rivers. The water is used to surround the blazing oil well allowing Well Fire Specialists to get close enough to put out the fires or make repairs. Each oil fire well is different and so each oil well fire must be evaluated to devise a plan of action.


    images from http://www.hq.usace.army.mil/cepa/iraq/photos.htm

    Oil Well Fires 1991



    Facts about oil well fires 1991

    * Iraq invaded Kuwaitin August 1990 and was forced to retreat in February 1991.
    * Iraq controls 24 % of the world oil supply.
    * Approximately 650 to 750 oil well fires were started as Iraq’s soldiers retreated.
    * Approximately 11 million barrels of oil was spilled intentionally into Persian Gulf.
    * Over 800 Miles of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia coastline were covered with oil.

    Examples of disaster

    Result of oil well fires and spills

    * “What Kuwait suffered as a result of the oil spills and burning oil wells during the Gulf War is considered notorious from an environmental perspective, leaving a legacy that far outlasted the actual combat. In 1991, the United Nations Security Council resolved that Iraq was liable for all direct environmental damage to Kuwait's terrestrial environment and to its natural resources”.

    * “In September 1995, Kuwait filed a $385 million claim against Iraq for environmental damage due to Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. The specific claims made to the United Nations were for damages to health, coastal areas, maritime environment, groundwater resources and desert environment.” (CNN)


    Outcome of 1991 war

    * Capping of the oil wells took less then a year.
    * Health problems resulted from the burning oil well fires (mostly respiratory).
    * UN Sanctions resulted in:
- lack of maintenance to oil wells and pipelines

- result in rusted and outdated parts

- greater chance for oil wells or oil pipelines to leak

- lack of replacement parts - lack of new technology in oil industry

The impact of oil fires and spills will be studied over the coming years. Some impacts are known right away such as dead birds, fishes, air pollution from smoke, pools of oil that lead to groundwater and soil contamination. Other impacts take a while to see what will happen and that is one of the reasons for continue study of Iraq and its people.



CNN in Depth Special: Environmental impact Oil fires and spills leave hazardous legacy
Dallas Morning News
Desk Study on the Environment in Iraq
Operation Desert Storm 1991
Gulf War risk factor report reprints
Oil Well Fire Smoke and Petroleum
Oil Spills: The Gulf War
Operation Iraqi Freedom 2003 (military)
USMC 4th LSB A Company Seattle Washington Desert Storm Photo
2003 Oil well fire photos
War information
BBC News- Baghdad oil fires 'serious health hazard'