March 22, 2003
Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, as predicted by many, including US intelligence reports, has started torching oilfields in the southern part of the country.
By late Friday, over 30 oil wells were believed to be on fire and smoke could be noticed in satellite pictures. The country has a total of 1,685 oil wells and two-thirds of them are concentrated in the region west of Basra, right in the line of advance of the US 3rd Division now rolling north into the country from its launch bases in Kuwait.
Most American assessments so far have been based on the assumption that setting oilfields on fire would have serious implications in economic terms and also have long and short-term adverse environmental and health consequences, but virtually no negative impact on military operations.
However, it appears that the smoke haze from the burning oil wells has already claimed its first military casualty in the crash of US Marine CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, just south of the port town of Umm Qasr, resulting in the death of all four US crew members and at least a dozen British Royal Marines.
Iraq had set nearly 800 oilfields in Kuwait on fire before its retreat from Kuwait in 1991. But setting its own oil wells on fire clearly demonstrates the state of desperation of the Iraqi leadership in the face of overwhelming US military superiority and a sense of helplessness arising out of declared US war aims.
In many ways this is reminiscent of Hitler, under threat of unconditional surrender, launching the V-I and V-II attacks on London and other cities of UK in the closing months of the Second World War, forcing the Allies to alter the plans for invasion of Europe.
Setting oilfields on fire is an acknowledgement that defeat is inevitable and would seem to be aimed at increasing the time and costs of US victory. Smoke from burning oilfields may not affect air operations to the extent that the US is now far less dependent on laser and heat-seekers for guidance of its airborne weapons.
But low-level operations, especially by hundreds of helicopters integral to the armoured formations, could be affected. And poor visibility and smoke would be adversely affecting night vision devices and slow down the advance of ground forces. The torching of Kuwaiti oilfields in 1991 had resulted in the fires burning for months on end.
At that time, Iraq had also released nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf, creating a massive oil spill for hundreds of kilometres into the Gulf; and the environmental and economic effects have persisted in some cases to the present times.
Serious threat to the desalination plants of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia had added to the complications. Up to 15 water desalination plants could be affected down the Gulf region now if that was to happen, creating serious water problems for countries like Kuwait which is host to the bulk of Anglo-American forces engaged in the attack on Iraq.
It had taken Kuwait and its coalition partners two years and nearly $50 billion to repair the oil infrastructure and restore oil output to the pre-war levels. Compared to that, the destruction through fire of the thousand-odd oilfields in southern Iraq could cost about $30-50 billion. This cost has to be seen in the context of a potential income from oil of around $20 billion a year, amounting to 90-95 percent of Iraq’s possible foreign exchange earnings. Iraq’s reconstruction could ill-afford the loss of income and concurrent additional costs.
At the same time, Iraq has a capability to release up to three million barrels of oil daily into the Persian Gulf. The emerging picture, therefore, would remain a source of serious concern to everyone who sympathises with the Iraqi people. But considering the small contribution of Iraqi oil to the world oil market at present, setting the oilfields on fire would not affect the overall availability of oil and its price.
Some psychological impact is inevitable. But even a simple calculation would indicate that Iraqi oil was not going to be available in the energy markets of the world at least as long as the war lasts.
And there are more than adequate reserves available (including within India for our own needs) to ensure that this disruption does not create shortages or any increase in oil price. Over the longer term, additional production by oil-rich countries would take care of the non-availability of Iraqi oil.
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