Overcoming the Most Extreme Logistics Challenges: Kuwaiti Oil Well Fires

Aftermath of war poses dangerous challenges that require precise and creative solutions

By Breakbulk Veteran John Amos

In 1991, at the close of the first Gulf War, Bechtel was hired by Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) to supply material and management personnel to help extinguish the oil well fires raging across the Kuwait oil fields. I was Bechtel’s corporate manager of logistics at the time and was called to London to assist in planning the mobilization effort. A few days later I flew to Dubai, the logistics hub for the project. Here, are some of the logistical challenges we faced.

The Kuwait oil fires produced an economic and environmental crisis of epic proportion. If the fires could not be rapidly controlled it was feared that it would cause an ecological disaster with millions of gallons of crude oil flowing south along the Saudi Arabia coastline on the Arabian Gulf. It required the immediate mobilization of many companies under the overall umbrella of the Kuwait Oil Company. As soon as Iraq’s military forces had been driven north out of Kuwait the immediate priority was how to extinguish the 482 burning oil wells that had been set on fire by the retreating forces. Making the task even more dangerous was that many of the burning wells had explosives planted near them making it difficult to plan how to put out the fires and cap the wells.

Logistical Challenges

Before logistical plans could be made, it was necessary to mobilize a workforce to determine material requirements and sources. Only then could ships and aircraft be hired. The next problem was that the two Kuwaiti ports were damaged by bombing and some piers blocked by sunken ships. The airport in Kuwait City was also damaged and under the control of U.S. Army special forces who rigidly controlled the arrival of cargo planes and personnel. Personnel arriving on charter aircraft included oil well firefighting companies from more than 20 countries.

Housing and mess facilities for hundreds of those arriving was difficult. Electricity and water was not always available and chemical-laden smoke from the fires caused 24-hour darkness. To house and feed the many arriving workers, an accommodation vessel with crew was time chartered and moored at the Port of Schuwaikh.

During this period a large staff was put in place in several locations around the world to plan and execute the movement of cargo into Kuwait. Most cargo arrived at Dubai’s Port of Jebel Ali to be transloaded onto feeder ships and barges for movement to Kuwait. Eventually a 24,000-DWT multipurpose vessel was time-chartered to facilitate the urgent and diverse types of cargo moving from Jebal Ali to Kuwait. This provided better and more consistent control of the cargo arriving every day at Jebel Ali.

Much of Kuwait’s infrastructure was damaged due to actions by the Iraqi military and the Liberation Forces during efforts to rid Kuwait of the Iraqi military forces who also looted a vast amount of local equipment. Amazingly, all fires were extinguished within nine months although it was forecasted that it would take two years. This enabled the Kuwaiti Government to start rebuilding their economy at an earlier date.

Lessons Learned

In retrospect, the rapid planning by many companies with experienced management used to dealing with complex issues in managing mega-projects was the key to the successful conclusion of this effort under extremely difficult and dangerous conditions. Companies that focus on this type of work must have detailed procedures in place that can be installed quickly and seasoned management that can deploy quickly and make things happen.

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About the Author

 John Amos is an international logistics and transportation consultant specializing in issues related to planning, operations and regulatory issues. His experience encompasses the fields of ocean, air and surface transportation. For more than 45 years he has had international and North American positions in the fields of logistics, procurement and construction management.

He is spearheading the Breakbulk Veterans guest author program. If you have a story to tell, contact John at [email protected].

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