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Too Much Water, Too Little Water: Both Causing Problems in Kuwait With AM-Gulf-Iraq, Bjt

April 10, 1991

GREATER BURGAN OIL FIELDS, Kuwait (AP) _ Some blazing oil wells are emitting clouds of steam, indicating underground water is entering oil reservoirs and could raise production costs long after the hundreds of fires are snuffed.

On the desert floor, where water is desperately lacking, American firefighting teams Wednesday built an improvised lagoon to hold 5 million gallons of water from the gulf needed in fighting the more than 500 raging infernos.

In some places, there’s water where it’s not wanted. In other places, there’s not enough. Either way, water is one of the major headaches in Kuwait’s oil fields.

″When you’re in the desert, water is usually a problem,″ said Raymond Henry, executive vice president of Red Adair Co., one of three American companies battling the blazes.

Atop dozens of oil well fires, black plumes of smoke have given way to steaming white clouds as the underground water seeps into the oil reservoirs.

The water lies beneath the oil, and under normal conditions they mix on a limited basis. The oil is extracted at a rate that doesn’t upset the balance.

But Iraqi saboteurs opened oil valves full throttle before setting off explosives, and the uncontrolled upward rush of oil has altered the pressure below ground and allowed water to enter the oil reserves, officials say.

If large amounts of water mix with oil reservoirs while the fires burn, the costs of extracting oil in the future could rise substantially, because water has to be separated from the oil in the refining process.

Officials from the state-run Kuwait Oil Co. say there is no way of knowing how much water has entered the oil reserves until the fires are put out.

″Water seepage is happening, but all estimates on damage to the fields is simply speculation at this point,″ said Riyadh al-Saleh, the manager of Kuwait’s Shuaiba Oil Refinery.

Kuwait’s oil gathering centers were geared to separate water and other substances from oil, al-Saleh said. But the damaged centers, many of which which will have to be rebuilt, may need new specifications if the water seepage is extensive, he said.

The Greater Burgan Oil Fields of southern Kuwait hold about 90 billion barrels of crude, the second-largest known oil reserves in the world.

Before the Iraqi invasion, Kuwait had one of the world’s cheapest oil production costs, averaging 50 cents a barrel, compared with $8 to $15 in the United States, according to oil industry officials. The cost will rise, but no one knows how much.

Kuwait’s Oil Minister Rasheed al-Amiri said it will take one to two years to put out the fires and at least one more year to restore production to anything near the 1.5 million- to 2 million-barrel-a-day output before occupation.

Al-Saleh said Kuwait hopes to rely mostly on undamaged wells to produce enough oil to meet Kuwait’s domestic needs - about 50,000 barrels a day - within three months.

Firefighters have capped about 20 wells that were damaged and spewing oil, but not on fire.

They extinguished several fires this week using water and liquid nitrogen, but still lack a large water supply needed to help fight the blazes and cool equipment as the temperatures hit the 90s and continue upward.

In an operation supervised by the U.S. engineering giant Bechtel, bulldozers are building 12-foot sand walls, which are lined with plastic, forming a pool to be filled with water from the Persian Gulf.

The water will be pumped about 10 miles from the gulf to the oil fields in pipes previously used to send oil and gas to port.

However, it will still be about two weeks before an Italian company, Saipem, completes adjustments to the pipelines that should meet all water needs, officials said.

Henry said the firefighters were still suffering equipment shortages, particularly bulldozers and cranes, which will have to be imported from the United States on C-5 cargo planes.

″It’s a logistical nightmare,″ said Henry, dressed in the distinctive red jumpsuit worn by the Red Adair workers. ″We need things that you can’t just put in your pocket and carry around.″

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