Oil Well Fires

You never use water to put out a grease fire in your kitchen. But specialists who extinguish oil well fires do use water to cool and dampen the area around the well. The fire itself is blown out with explosives.

You’ve probably seen pictures of oil wells burning — plumes of flame and black smoke shooting skyward.

Hundreds of oil wells were set aflame in Kuwait in 1991 — more oil wells have burned this year. The fires make flaming geysers because the oil wells in Kuwait and southern Iraq are geo-pressured. The rising oil is trapped underground by the weight of the rock on top. There’s so much oil, under so much pressure, that when you take the welltop off, the oil sprays up into the sky. The oil fires in Kuwait in 1991 were started by exploding charges that blew off the wellheads and ignited the oil.

Droplets of unburned oil sprayed into the air, so that aircraft flying over burning wells in Kuwait that year returned with their wings coated with oil. In the dozen years since then, scientists have studied these oil fires. They know that smoke from burning wells contains carcinogens and pollutants such as carbon monoxide, soot, and sulfur dioxide — a prime component in acid rain. Well fires in Kuwait are now known to have released 500 million tons of carbon dioxide, the leading cause of global warming.

When the burning oil shoots up and mixes with the air, it makes a hotter fire and billows of thick black smoke. If the fire isn’t extinguished, it will keep burning as long as it’s geo-pressured – that is, as long as the oil is pushed aboveground — there’s not enough oxygen for oil to burn underground.

Now, a dozen years later, scientists still aren’t sure how much damage burning oil wells in Kuwait inflicted on the planet and human health.

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