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Bechtel’s Impact Report

Kuwait Oil Field Restoration

Kuwait Oil Field on fire

An Environmental and Economic Disaster

As the first Gulf War drew to a close in February of 1991, retreating Iraqi forces systematically blew up oil wells, tanks, refineries, and other facilities in Kuwait. According to some estimates, the resulting fires burned four to six million barrels of crude oil per day. In addition, oil spilled into low-lying areas and trenches in the desert. Some were set on fire.

Poisonous smoke, soot, and ash filled the skies. It was an environmental catastrophe and  economic disaster for Kuwait.

To make matters worse, land mines and unexploded munitions presented hazards to firefighting crews.

On behalf of the Kuwait Oil Company, Bechtel and an international team took on the raging fires, managed the environmental restoration, and reconstructed the country’s oil production facilities.

In just nine months, the team extinguished and capped 650 damaged or burning oil wells in Kuwait.  In 12 months, oil production was restored to pre-war 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 oil fields. Further, after Saddam Hussein’s army released more than 11 million barrels of oil into the gulf, Bechtel swiftly coordinated the effort to clean up the water and shoreline.

"Bechtel has proven time and again that they can really deliver when faced with a challenge."

 Dr. Nizar Tawfiq, vice president of the Saudi Meteorology and Environmental Protection Administration

Crude oil spilling into the Gulf

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.

A blanket of smoke and petroleum mist lay over most of Kuwait. At high noon, people often used flashlights to see the street curbs.

Early recovery

Experts had estimated it would take decades for a complete environmental recovery. But the Bechtel-led team beat expectations. For example, crews completed the clean-up 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 clean-up 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.

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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. The 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 established a laydown yard, docking facilities, and warehousing at the free port of Jebel Ali in Dubai.

Teamwork and Relentless Drive

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. The effort was a 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).

Bechtel 120: Kuwait Oil Field Restoration