The companies that get their hands dirty cleaning up after major oil spills say they’re ready to help should this Pentagon scenario for Iraq come to pass: a new oil disaster, this time inside Iraq, that’s worse than the fires and spills left by Iraq when it fled Kuwait in 1991. They’re ready, they say, but they also haven’t been approached by U.S. planners, leaving them wondering about their role.
“DURING DESERT STORM we were called up by the White House through the Coast Guard,” recalls David Usher, currently president of the Spill Control Association of America. “At this point we haven’t heard anything ... we don’t know what the circumstances are.”
On Thursday, the Pentagon did say it was working with Brown & Root Services, a subsidiary of Halliburton, to plan for oil disaster scenarios. The announcement took the cleanup industry by surprise, and while neither the Pentagon nor Brown & Root would elaborate on the planning, the cleanup industry clearly hopes they’ll be involved as contractors.
What is known is that oil spills and fires inside Iraq could do significantly more damage — and cost significantly more to clean up — than those caused by Iraqi troops when they retreated from Kuwait 12 years ago.
Back then, the United States, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other countries estimated their cleanup costs at well over $100 million — a figure used to try to get compensation from Iraq. Private oil companies ran separate tabs — Saudi Arabia Texaco, for example, figured it spent $1.3 million in cleanup costs.
In addition, Kuwait is still cleaning up its desert and shorelines, estimating it could cost $1 billion to do it right. And Iraq’s neighbors estimate that monitoring and assessing environmental damage has cost them $1 billion.
If it does come to a new war — and there are oil fires and spills again — planners will have had two advantages.
First, while they obviously can’t get into Iraq they can take steps to protect the Persian Gulf, which most of Iraq’s neighbors rely on for drinking water through desalination plants.
Second, there are plenty of lessons learned during the 1991 Gulf War that can be applied today.
SPILLS IN THE GULF
The Coast Guard has already been asked by the Pentagon to plan for a marine oil spill, Coast Guard spokesman Gene Maestas tells MSNBC.com. “We do have strike team members in the Arabian Gulf region,” he says, “providing technical assistance ... in the event there is an oil spill.”
The Coast Guard wouldn’t elaborate, but at least one cutter patrolling the gulf has technology to remove up to 26,000 gallons of crude an hour.
In the event of a spill, the Coast Guard would also oversee work carried out by contractors like Usher, whose company Marine Pollution Control was one of a handful hired in 1991 to deal with the oil spill’s impact on Saudi Arabia’s coastline.
In the 1991 incident, some 6 million barrels of crude were released into the Persian Gulf. That was the worst oil spill ever, but Iraq has the potential to do even more damage. “Because of the oil manifolds in Al-Faw peninsula,” a Pentagon source told reporters last January, Iraq “has a capability to deliberately release up to 2 million to 3 million barrels a day of oil into the gulf.”
The focus, as it was in 1991, would be to protect the desalination plants that supply fresh water to millions of people along the Gulf.
Back in 1991, intake valves were protected with filters and encircled by “booms” — floating, fenced pens that keep oil out. “Skimmers” were used to suck up oil that did make it past the booms.
Crews were assisted by two Coast Guard jets that photographed and mapped oil spill movements, while U.S. scientists helped with computer models.
This time around, planning includes some more advanced technology, such as 20 buoys recently dropped into the gulf that carry sensors to help predict oil spill movements.
FIRES, SPILLS ON LAND
Cleanup crews could face an even tougher challenge inside Iraq, where oil fields are spread out and often near populated areas.
In Kuwait, on the other hand, the oil fires were in a desert area close to the gulf, which provided water that could be quickly pumped in to cool off well heads.
Experts with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitored air quality, noting that at the peak of the fires, 3 to 6 million barrels a day of crude were going up in smoke. In addition, an estimated 70 million barrels of crude spilled onto the desert floor.
Joseph Lafornara, head of the EPA’s Emergency Response Team, said the EPA also advised on how to extinguish fires and plug wells, leaving the actual work to contractors. “We are anticipating a similar pattern would be followed in Iraq,” he says.
By April 1993, according to the Bechtel Group, which managed 9,000 workers in Kuwait, 11 million barrels of crude that had accumulated in pits and lakes in Kuwait’s desert had been recovered using specialized trucks with huge vacuums. Most of that crude was sent to a refinery.
In Iraq, which has twice as many oil wells, the fields are in areas that range from swamps to mountains.
In addition, much of Iraq’s oil is rich in hydrogen sulfide, a chemical that if burned has a cyanide-like effect.
Phil Campana, an EPA chemist who helped fight the Kuwait fires, says especially vulnerable populations are children, the elderly and asthmatics.
The U.S. Navy medical corps has also showed concern about what oil fires might do to troops, asking U.S. government experts for advice on what “appropriate protective gear” should be used in that scenario.
For Usher, another key variable is how any cleanup crews would be received by Iraqis. “It depends on how we’re greeted or not greeted,” he says. “Do we really know?”
INDUSTRY SAYS IT’S READY
David Jensen, assistant director of the National Oil Spill School at the University of Texas, doesn’t expect cleanup crews to be sent into a hostile environment. “They’re certainly not going to send in any response types in that kind of scenario,” he predicts. Instead, he figures, planners will focus initially on minimizing any spills in the gulf.
Usher, for his part, is confident that the oil spill industry will be able to respond.
One factor is that the industry is suffering from underutilization. New environmental controls and quicker response times have meant an 80 percent drop in oil spills from six years ago, Usher notes. “We sort of put ourselves out of work.”
In addition, while companies like Usher’s would provide supervisors, the crews needed to drive trucks, shovel crude and build ditches would come from gulf countries and beyond. Most aren’t the high-paying jobs that oil well firefighters get, but recruits can be found. In 1991, for example, Bechtel marshalled workers from three dozen countries.A second factor is the international resources, especially European, that can be called upon. Bechtel and Oil Spill Response Ltd., a London-based consortium owned by major oil companies, would likely provide some of those resources, though executive director Archie Smith notes that “to date we have had no contact with U.S. officials in respect of this threat.” Bechtel said it, too, hasn’t been contracted for potential cleanup work.
Usher says he’s not worried about how much notice the industry would get if called up for Iraq duty, noting that planning can only get you so far.
“You never know everything until you do it,” he says. “Naturally we plan but we also live by our wits.”