Firefighters trying to get under control oil wells damaged by Islamic State militants

The struggle to put out Mosul’s oil-well fires

Image credit: Reuters

Tens of oil wells around the Iraqi city of Mosul have been on fire for months, spewing plumes of thick black choking smoke. Local fire-fighters and oil engineers with little equipment have been struggling to tame the blazes with limited results, and experts now suggest international assistance may be needed to get the situation under control.

A Reuters reporter has described how in Mosul’s Qayyara district, where tens of oil wells were set on fire by retreating Islamic State militants in August, engineers and firefighters were trying to put out the fires, protecting their faces from the toxic fumes only with scarfs. Greasy soot is covering their clothes as well as nearby houses and trees and sticks to the wool of grazing sheep.

“I’ve worked in oil for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Hussein Saleh, a 57-year-old engineer working for Iraq’s North Oil Company, which operated the wells before Islamic State seized control over them in 2014 to fund its activities.

“Daesh (Islamic State) just put explosives on the wellheads and blew them up.”

The situation is reminiscent of the 1990s oil well fires in Kuwait lit by the losing Iraqi army after Operation Desert Storm. Over 700 oil wells burned for seven months, causing a major environmental crisis. International companies led by famed oil-well firefighter Red Adair had to be called in to tackle the catastrophe. In early November, the Oxfam charity called on the Iraqi government to solicit international help for Mosul, but nothing has happened.

“The security risk in Mosul is obviously higher than what it was in Kuwait in the 1990s,” said Bhavesh Ranka, operations manager at Cudd Well Control, whose colleagues worked on the Kuwaiti fires.

“There is not much information about the situation in Mosul. We don’t even know how many wells exactly are on fire. I personally think it will be very difficult for the locals to deal with it.

The eyewitnesses’ testimonies confirm Ranka’s concerns. Firefighter Nation described the Sisyphean efforts of the locals trying to extinguish one fire by bulldozing dirt over the burning ground only to unleash a new stream of crude with each shove.

“Oil-well firefighting is a very specialised field. There are only a handful of companies in the world with the right expertise,” said Ranka.

“It’s not only about stopping the fire. That’s probably the easiest thing. But once the fire is put out, you could still have oil or gas leaking from the well. You need to get that leak under control, which means you have to replace the damaged equipment and install new equipment. This could be difficult because the pressure in the well can be quite high, up to 10,000 psi. It could be very physically daunting and requires careful planning.”

Ranka says that while the majority of the Kuwaiti oil wells were low-pressure wells, many of those burning in the territory formerly held by the Islamic State are believed to be high-pressure wells.

“High-pressure well fires usually require more equipment because you are fighting against the pressure as well,” says Ranka. “The high pressure can move the equipment that you are trying to cap the well with. Without proper tools and equipment, this can present a higher risk for the workers.”

Most oil-well fires can be put out by squirting large amounts of water into the blaze. In in the past, fire-fighters used explosives in some cases to blow out the flame like blowing out a candle or employed gas turbines blasting a fine mist of water at the base of the fire.

“We have taken control of fires within a couple of days to a few months,” says Ranka. ”It also depends on the logistics. If it’s a remote location where you don’t have any kind of tools or equipment, you have to fly equipment over in the region and if the roads are not good, then you have to construct new roads or air-drop the equipment and that could take some time.”

The engineers in Mosul have reportedly managed to handle at least seven of the burning oil wells. But with some of the oil fields in the region still under ISIS control, the situation could get worse.

“We use water, earth, everything we can to control and reduce the blaze, and it’s a big team - perhaps 150 people working on one well,” Ahmed Hidayat, a 54-year-old oil field supervisor, told Reuters.

“Earth is bulldozed over the burning oil surrounding the well so we can get close to it, and then when we’re close enough we cap the well. We try to plug it with a new wellhead instead of cementing it over, because then we’d have to drill through again.”

The North Oil Company is paying the workers $50 a day for the risk they have to expose themselves to. Many are worried about their health.

“The fires are massive and you breathe in so much smoke,” said oil-field worker Sabah Ali. “Someone choked on it recently and had to be treated by our medical team.”

The area is also riddled with landmines planted by Islamic State.

If the situation proves to be beyond the powers of the local firefighters with their modest technology, the government would have to ask for international assistance. Otherwise, the fires, Ranka says, could go on indefinitely for months or years, depending how much oil and pressure is in the reservoirs.

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