When oil fields become battlefields

If Saddam repeats his Gulf War strategy of torching oil wells, he could set off one of the worst environmental disasters in history.

Published March 20, 2003 11:54PM (EST)

In the early hours of the U.S. attack on Iraq, there were several unconfirmed news reports of oil wells burning near Basra, the oil-rich southern city not far from Iraq's border with Kuwait. If accurate, the reports would be the first evidence that Saddam Hussein plans to repeat the scorched-earth strategy of oil-field destruction that he used in Kuwait in 1991 -- a strategy that could result, analysts say, in one of the worst environmental disasters in history.

Like much of the early news from the front, stories of possible Iraqi oil sabotage are, at this point, sketchy. Kuwaiti news agencies first reported that Iraqi troops were setting the fires, but according to Reuters, Iranian media have spotted U.S. jets exploding the Basra fields. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released satellite images of southern Iraq that show plumes "consistent with where oil wells are known to exist," the agency said in a statement. During a press briefing on Thursday morning, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that the Pentagon has not confirmed reports of oil fires, but that he has seen "indication ... that the Iraqi regime may have set fire to as many as three or four of the oil wells in the south. And we're in the process of attempting to get additional information on that." Rumsfeld added that "needless to say, it is a crime for that regime to be destroying the riches of the Iraqi people."

But Amir Muhammed Rasheed, Iraq's oil minister, told Reuters that Iraq hasn't set any oil wells on fire, and any reports to the contrary are part of an American propaganda effort. "This report that was given to you is a film from the American gangs and is misleading and prejudiced," Rasheed told the news agency.

For months U.S. officials have warned that in the event of war, Saddam Hussein would try to destroy Iraq's oil infrastructure. Early in March, the Pentagon announced that it had intelligence indicating that oil-well destruction has "been planned, and in some cases, may already have begun." (The department said that it had tapped Kellogg Brown & Root, a division of the Halliburton Co., Vice President Cheney's old firm, to develop a plan to fight the fires.)

The possibility of Iraqi oil-well sabotage raises two questions: Why would Saddam order the fires -- what would he gain from it? And what would the damage be -- how much, in money and in environmental destruction, would the fires cost the U.S., the Iraqis, and the world?

John Pike, an intelligence analyst and the director of GlobalSecurity.org, says that Saddam would most likely blow up his fields for an immediate military advantage -- the thick black smoke pouring out of burning wells would confuse U.S. troops. "Many of the military sensors cannot see through smoke," Pike says. "Some of the spy satellites, TV cameras, U2s have problems with it. So it could substantially reduce the amount of military information available to U.S. troops, and put some fog back on to the battlefield."

Saddam might also be counting on a long-term result from oil destruction. Heavy damage to the fields could cause oil shortages and chaos in international markets, possibly raising the price of oil -- hurting the oil-thirsty American economy, especially the Bush administration's friends and associates.

But Saddam faces risks from this strategy, too. The U.S. spin on this war is that Saddam is an evil dictator who doesn't care about the welfare of Iraqi people -- Saddam only cares about survival, and he's willing to destroy the county's most precious resources and cause tremendous environmental damage in the land just to save his neck. President Bush tried to make some version of this case in his address on Monday, warning Iraqi soldiers not to destroy the oil fields, and this week in Baghdad, the U.S. military has been broadcasting reports of Saddam's intention to civilians. According to the New York Times, the U.S. told Iraqis: "You will face complete destruction if you comply with these orders to sabotage the oil wells. He can't destroy them himself. He will need your help. Follow the instructions of the coalition. You have two choices: listen to Saddam and face the consequences, or refuse to follow his orders and save yourself for a post-Saddam Iraq."

The U.S. wants to make clear, Pike says, that "Iraqi destruction would contravene the laws of armed conflict because it would be wanton destruction of civilian property and the military advantage Iraq would derive from it would be disproportionate to the immense economic and environment damage."

It's conceivable, too, that if he destroys his oil fields, Saddam would alienate some of people who have been most critical of the Bush administration's war. Europeans, who have criticized President Bush for his unwillingness to curb American greenhouse gas emissions, could find it hard not to condemn Saddam for setting oil fires, which would result in millions of tons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.

Indeed, one of the ironies of this war is that Bush, whose abysmal record on the environment is a key reason he's so disliked by the world, could reasonably make the claim that Saddam poses a severe danger to the earth. The Pentagon has been making the environmental case against Saddam. On Feb. 24, a senior Defense Department official -- the Pentagon didn't want the official's name published -- held a press briefing in Washington to remind reporters of the environmental damage Saddam caused in Kuwait in 1991, and the damage he poses to Iraq today.

"We all recall the oil disaster of the Exxon Valdez," the official said. "The actions that were taken by Saddam after the Gulf War were about 20 times the disaster of the Exxon Valdez. And at that time, Saddam set on fire about 700-plus of the oil fields in Kuwait. At the same time, he also released about 5 million barrels into the Gulf" -- the worst oil spill in history. "Even today," the official said, "there are still environmental cleanup actions being taken."

According to the World Resources Institute, an environmental policy group in Washington, the fires Iraqi troops set in Kuwait spewed 500 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, "emissions greater than all but the eight largest polluting countries for 1991." In an assessment of the damage on its site, the group also says that "the deposition of oil, soot, sulfur, and acid rain on croplands up to 1,200 miles in all directions from the oil fires turned fields untillable and led to food shortages." And "the oil that did not burn in the fires traveled on the wind in the form of nearly invisible droplets resulting in an oil mist or fog that poisoned trees and grazing sheep, contaminated fresh water supplies, and found refuge in the lungs of people and animals throughout the Gulf." And the spilled oil "killed more than 25,000 birds," leaving a "toxic residue will continue to affect fisheries in the Gulf for over 100 years."

Adlai Amor, a spokesman for the institute, said that fires in Iraq could be much worse than those in Kuwait. In 1991, about 600 wells were set alight. In Iraq, there are about 1,500 oil wells spread over a broad area of the country, some in topographically treacherous regions that could make firefighting difficult. If Saddam sets them all on fire, the damage to the atmosphere, the land and the Persian Gulf would be beyond anything the world has seen before.

And it would make for a strange twist: Suddenly, George W. Bush -- opponent of the Kyoto Protocol, proponent of snowmobiles and logging in our forests, a man not very worried about arsenic in drinking water -- would be fighting a war to save the earth.

It could be several hours or even days before anyone sees hard evidence that Iraqis have begun destroying oil fields. Pike says that even if it's determined that fields near Basra are burning, that doesn't mean something sinister is going on. "Oil fields tend to catch on fire anyway," he says. "On any given day a fixed percentage of the world's oil wells are on fire, so with the fragmentary information that we have at this point it's too soon to say whether they've been set. We know what a burning oil well looks like, but seeing an oil well on fire doesn't tell you anything."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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Dick Cheney Donald Rumsfeld Environment Iraq Iraq War Middle East