In a heroic effort following the Gulf War in 1991, Bechtel and an international team needed just nine months to cap 650 damaged or burning oil wells in Kuwait.
Inside the project
When Bechtel arrived in war-ravaged Kuwait in March 1991, experts predicted that quelling the oil-field inferno and restoring production of hydrocarbons would take up to five years. The team brought the burning and gushing oil wells under control in just eight months, and in 12 months oil production was restored to prewar capacity.
Bechtel mobilized an international force of more than 16,000 workers to put out the wellhead fires, stop the gushing flow of oil, and help resurrect the Kuwait oil fields. Further, after Saddam Hussein’s army escalated Iraq’s war on the environment by releasing more than 11 million barrels of oil into the gulf, Bechtel swiftly coordinated the effort to clean up the water and shoreline.
Preparations and resources
At the start, there was nothing but a plan. No water, food, or electricity. No facilities or equipment to speak of.
During the first six months of the oil-fires project, called Al-Awda (Arabic for "The Return"), Bechtel deployed a thousand engineering and construction professionals and, with Kuwait Oil Company, brought in 8,500 manual workers of 35 nationalities. Meanwhile, we imported 200,000 tons of equipment from a dozen countries—the largest peacetime airlift since Berlin.
Highly trained specialists cleared areas of unexploded munitions—huge quantities of everything from mines and bombs to grenades and artillery shells. Our team built docking facilities, warehouses, a field hospital, portable housing, and dining halls that served 30,000 meals a day. About 550 miles (900 kilometers) to the southeast, Bechtel estabalished a laydown yard, docking facilities, and warehousing at the free port of Jebel Ali in Dubai.
How we did it
With resources at hand, the team constructed reservoir systems, including 200 lagoons, each filled with a million gallons (nearly 3.8 million liters) of seawater, and 90 miles (145 kilometers) of pipeline to deliver 20 million gallons (nearly 67 million liters) of water a day to the firefighting effort.
Project personnel dammed the flowing oil and prepared a new road to each wellhead.
With the lagoons in place, and using the right combination of pumps and hoses, firefighters could throw on a blaze (and on themselves because of the tremendous heat) 6,000 gallons—nearly 23,000 liters—in a single minute. Shielded by sections of corrugated steel, crews used explosives, mud-like well sealant, and even a jet engine mounted on a military tank to extinguish the fires. One by one, the fires went out and the blowouts were brought under control.
In the meantime, a Bechtel engineer directed the development of an experimental recovery pond with skimming devices and a rudimentary system to clear contaminants from the oil. It was a big success, aiding Kuwait environmentally and monetarily.
We mobilized a fleet of wide-body jets that made 200 trips to Kuwait to deliver 9,000 orders of equipment and supplies, ranging from bulldozers and cranes to terrycloth towels for mopping up oil and fire-resistant underwear for crews fighting the blazes, burning at more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,100 degrees Celsius).
A blanket of smoke and petroleum mist lay over most of Kuwait. At high noon, people often used flashlights to see the street curbs.
Kuwait oil field on fire
Oil first gushed into the gulf in January 1991, following Iraqi sabotage at Kuwait’s Sea Island Terminal. The flow from that loading facility, as well as from oil tankers, formed a thick slick roughly 25 miles long by 10 miles wide (40 by 16 kilometers). “It’s black, smelly, and filled with death,” said the head of Bechtel’s project management team.
Saudi shores bore the brunt of the slick, and Bechtel helped the Saudi Arabian government respond to the world’s largest oil spill.
“Bechtel has proven time and again that they can really deliver when faced with a challenge,” said Dr. Nizar Tawfiq, vice president of the Saudi Meteorology and Environmental Protection Administration, our customer.
Experts had estimated it would take decades for a complete environmental recovery. But the Bechtel-led team beat expectations. For example, crews completed the cleanup of Karan Island, offshore Saudi Arabia near Jubail, just in time for endangered green and hawksbill sea turtles, which for generations had used Karan as a nesting ground starting in early May.
By mid-1991 the effects of the cleanup effort were already clearly visible as fish and dolphin returned to swim in the Gulf. The region continued to recover ahead of expectations.
Beyond the fires
After the completion of the firefighting effort, Kuwait Oil Company invited Bechtel to present our plan for the reconstruction of the oil fields, production, and exporting facilities. We were awarded the project, named Al Tameer (Arabic for "The Reconstruction") and immediately got to work.
Our team of 16,000 workers using 6,000 pieces of construction equipment:
- rebuilt offshore export piers
- laid pipe extending more than 1,200 miles (some 2,000 kilometers)
- reconstructed tank farms, administration buildings, and warehouses
- rebuilt 22 gathering centers using modular construction to accelerate the process
- installed a telecommunications system that included 6,500 telephones and portable radios
We restored oil production to prewar capacity in just 12 months.