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Saturday, March 22

Oil fires few, but firefighters ready to deploy

By Dennis Camire | GNS

WASHINGTON - Coalition forces have saved three oil export terminals that will be needed to help Iraq rebuild and only nine oil wells in the key Rumaylah oil fields have been sabotaged, U.S. Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks said Saturday.

Franks said ground forces have prevented further destruction of about 500 oil wells in the Rumaylah region in southern Iraq.

“The attack continues as we speak and has already moved the distance of the longest maneuver in the 1991 gulf war in one quarter of the time,” Franks said. “The oil fields were spared destruction that was intended by the (Iraqi) regime because of the effectiveness of these attacks.”

In addition, Franks said coalition special operations forces saved three oil terminals used for export through the Persian Gulf.

“By preventing certain destruction, the coalition has preserved the future of Iraq,” said Franks, the military commander of the war.

Lt. Gen. James Conway, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said the military has preserved 85 percent of the operational capability of the fields and other oil facilities.

The six major plants in Rumaylah are being evaluated for how quickly they can begin pumping oil again.

Commanders said they are focused on shutting down the plants to prevent more fires and environmental damage. They also are dealing with oil-filled trenches that U.S. officials say Iraqi troops set aflame.

The Pentagon has a contingency plan to fight any outbreak of oil well fires in Iraq but isn’t saying whether it has awarded contracts to firefighters.

“At this point in time, information on whether or not something has been awarded is under a classified status,” said Megan Fox, a Defense Department spokeswoman.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday that several of the wells on fire are pouring oil onto the ground.

“We would intend to, in fairly short order, have the people that know how to repair those wells in there and putting the fires out and fixing the ones that are still spilling out on the ground,” Rumsfeld said.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate energy committee, called the early success of protecting the Iraqi oil fields very good news.

“Instances where wells have been set on fire by Hussein loyalists are troubling but not as extensive as we had feared,” he said. “The sabotage of these wells only serves to destroy the wealth of the Iraqi people.”

Domenici said that even if more wells were destroyed, “I am confident that the United States and the world have more than enough oil in reserve here and around the world to avoid any shortages or supply disruptions.”

The Pentagon said earlier this month that it had a contingency plan for dealing on short notice with oil well fires that might occur during the attack on Iraq. The plan was developed by Brown & Root Services. The company is a division of Halliburton, which Vice President Richard Cheney headed from 1995 to 2000.

The Pentagon started contacting oil well firefighting companies before the war to find out their capabilities and tell them they may be needed in Iraq.

“We’ve had lots of intelligence that suggested that explosives were being moved into those (oil field) areas and that there was a risk that the Iraqi regime would do what they did to the Kuwaiti oil fields,” Rumsfeld said. “That was an environmental disaster.”

When Saddam Hussein’s troops scrambled out of Kuwait a dozen years ago, they set about 732 oil fires that took specialists about nine months to extinguish. The fear of a repeat in the much more extensive Iraqi fields was behind the Pentagon’s planning.

Last week, the Defense Department published a special number - (866) 461-5171 - for use by companies that wanted to provide specialized services in firefighting or assessing damage to oil facilities.

“We’ve had several conversations over the last three weeks with the Department of Defense, and we’ve chatted about what our role could be,” said Les Skinner, director of well control engineering for Cudd Well Control in Houston. “I think everyone is kind of sitting back right now, waiting to see what is going to happen and so far, we have not heard anything.”

The fact that so few oil wells have been ignited so far is having an effect on oil trading and the companies that fight the fires.

The Middle East Economic Survey reports in its Monday edition that oil traders are not concerned about oil well fires in southern Iraq because they are limited in number and aren’t like the burning of oil wells in Kuwait previously.

Shares of Boots and Coots International Well Control of Houston dropped by as much as 23 percent Friday on the American Stock Exchange because so few wells were belching smoke and flames.

But Skinner said that just because his company hasn’t been contacted so far doesn’t mean that the Pentagon hasn’t called his competitors.

“They may be trying to keep it small,” he said. “The fewer the number of people they have over there, the fewer they have to protect and deal with. But we fully anticipate that if it’s a significant effort, we are going to be in there.”

(Contributing: Maureen Groppe, GNS)