Oil Fires Not a Big Threat, Some Say

Several scientists dispute forecast that burning Kuwaiti wells will have nuclear-winter effect

EVEN if the Gulf war does result in major oil well fires and oil spills, the environmental consequences may be much less severe than forecast earlier this month. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has threatened to release large amounts of oil from wells into the Gulf and to set fire to Kuwaiti oil wells if the US and its allies attack Kuwait. [A US military spokesman said Tuesday that Iraq had blown up some Kuwaiti wells and storage tanks.] Unconfirmed press reports assert that Iraq has mined 300 Kuwait wells.

If all these wells were set fire and burned for a few years they still would not throw enough smoke high enough into the atmosphere to affect the world's climate, says Richard Small, contradicting the predictions of other scientists. The director of Thermal Sciences of the Pacific Sierra Research Corporation, Dr. Small says ``it just simply is not a large enough amount [of smoke] to cause a temperature change.''

The oil spill threat may also have been overstated. If major oil spills occurred or if Saddam Hussein made good his threat to pump oil into the Gulf, most of it would sink to the bottom within a month once the sandstorm season began early this spring, says Jerry Galt, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association who has done mathematical analyses of oil-spill movement.

Earlier this month Abdullah Toukan, science adviser to Jordan's King Hussein, and several other scientists warned that burning oil wells could have a nuclear-winter effect, putting so much smoke and dust into the atmosphere that the sun would be obscured, Earth's temperature would cool in some areas, food production would be reduced, and acid rain would damage croplands.

That scenario is exaggerated, Dr. Small says, adding however that there would be ``a massive amount of pollution,'' whose effect would be regional.

Setting fire to wells is ``the kind of threat that Saddam Hussein throws out on the table, just as he has [threatened] to fill the Gulf with oil,'' says United States Energy Secretary James Watkins. ``We take [the threats] very seriously.''

Small and John Fairington, dean of graduate students at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Mass., say smoke and debris from an exploded nuclear bomb would rise much higher than smoke from an oil well fire. Thus, nuclear debris would girdle the globe, but smoke from oil fires probably would not be high enough to, Small says. The theory of nuclear winter is based ``on a much greater amount of smoke,'' he adds.

SMALL has made mathematical calculations he calls very conservative of what would occur if all the oil from the 300 wells was set ablaze. It ``would produce 15,000 tons of smoke a day,'' that would rise no higher than 3,000 feet. Smoke from Kuwaiti refineries would rise somewhat higher for perhaps 10 days, he calculates.

The total is ``an enormous amount of smoke,'' Small says. ``However, it is not very high in the atmosphere, [therefore] it will probably fall out... It will be a regional deposition,'' falling to land between Kuwait and northern India.

This amount of soot is a comparable amount of smoke to the 1988 Yellowstone forest fire, Small says, which did not even reach the eastern US before falling to the ground.

Oil fires are not a new problem in the Middle East, says Galt. During the Iran-Iraq war, seven wells in the Nowruz oil field, off the Iranian coast, were set on fire and burned for at least two years. ``The smoke from the Nowruz oil field went on for a long time, was very big, and no one seemed to notice,'' he says.

Major oil spills in the Gulf, intentional or not, would be ``a significant problem,'' Fairington says. He says the amount of environmental damage to the ecology of the Gulf would depend on how long the oil leaks, how much spills, and how much evaporates.

Nonetheless, the dramatic estimates of horrific damage to the ecology of the Gulf are overblown, Galt indicates.

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