Donella Meadows Archives

Kuwait’s Oil — The Future up in Flames

By Donella Meadows

–May 9, 1991–

“Kind of sick,” was President Bush’s response to the news that the Iraqis had opened an oil terminal and let it spill into the sea on the tenth day of the Gulf War.

We were told then that the spill amounted to 11 million barrels — 40 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Now it seems that number was either an inadvertent exaggeration born of panic, or a deliberate one designed to mislead Saddam Hussein or to enhance the demonic image we were painting of him.

The Saudis now say the spill was about three million barrels. Others put it even lower — maybe around one million. That’s four times the loss from the Exxon Valdez. It’s one-fourth as much as the oil Iran deliberately poured into the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war. It’s the amount normally spilled every year into the Gulf as a result of peacetime oil operations.

All those spills together add up to an environmental disaster. The corals that form the base of the ecosystem of the warm shallow Gulf are poisoned by oil. When they go, many other creatures go too. In that fractious part of the world no one is recording extinctions, but there is no doubt that they were happening even before Saddam Hussein’s big spill — which will bring them on even faster.

The ecological tragedy in the water would look enormous, if there weren’t a worse one unfolding on land. Roughly the equivalent of that one huge spill is going up in flames every DAY in Kuwait.

The commonly quoted rate of burning from the wells is six million barrels per day. If you try to imagine how that number might be measured, you will realize that it must be a wild guess. In fact it is now being scaled down, just as the estimate of the oil spill was scaled down. Some experts are saying three million barrels a day are burning in the desert. Some put the number at 1.5 to 2 million barrels, about the amount of oil Kuwait was producing before the war.

We know what some of the environmental and economic effects of this loss will be. Others we will have to discover as they happen. We know about the greasy black smoke, which will certainly cause lung disease in the people in the area. We know that at $20 a barrel Kuwait is losing about $60 million a day in revenues — $22 billion a year.

The economic loss may be far greater than that, because the oil is being sucked out of the burning wells faster than the sustainable production rate — which is the rate at which underground oil can flow toward the wellhead. Pulling the oil out too fast means that subterranean salt water flows in to fill the breach. That makes the remaining underground oil harder to recover, maybe impossible to recover. We won’t know for a long time how much the fires are reducing Kuwait’s ultimately usable oil reserves.

We do know that the oil contains sulfur, which burning turns into sulfur dioxide, which the atmosphere turns into sulfuric acid — acid rain. We don’t know how much acid is forming or where it will fall, but the effects will appear far downwind from Kuwait.

The impact on climate will be complicated. Nearby and in the short term the smoke keeps sunlight from reaching the ground. That creates local cooling. As the surrounding desert heats with the summer, the temperature differentials will set up strange wind and rain patterns, which are hard to predict and which could be violent.

More certain is the contribution to the greenhouse effect. If the burning rate is three million barrels per day, that increases world oil consumption by five percent and worldwide output of carbon dioxide by about two percent. It will bring on global climate change that much faster.

That hurts, at a time when some nations are working hard to CUT their carbon dioxide emissions. Just to offset the emissions from the burning oil wells would take, for example, a doubling of gas mileage of all the vehicles in the United States, or halving the number of miles we drive.

Most heartbreaking of all, the burning oil is rushing from the ground into the sky without producing any human benefit whatsoever. It’s hard to grasp the magnitude of this waste. For as long as it burns, the flaming oil in Kuwait is more than enough to supply all of West Germany. It could provide the current oil consumption of all of Africa plus China. It’s twice as much as is needed for all the oil-heated houses in the United States.

One of the age-old strategies of war is to destroy that which the enemy considers most precious — lives, cities, strategic facilities, and, in every major war this century, oil. The oilfields of Baku were set aflame in World War I. The fields and refineries in Indonesia and Romania were burned in World War II. Now the fields of Kuwait are afire. Species of life are extinguished by every war too, not deliberately, but because they lie in the path of destruction, as do the corals of the Persian Gulf.

The trouble is that neither oil nor a living species is just the enemy’s resource. They are planetary resources. They are intrinsically limited. Once they are gone, they will never come again. And the pollution created in their destruction is not just the enemy’s pollution. It affects everyone, especially future generations.

When those future generations read about the Gulf War and see the pictures not only of the human misery and the blasted buildings, but of the spilled and burning oil, I think they will use stronger words than “kind of sick.” They will think we were crazy. They will think we were immoral. I don’t see how they will be able to forgive us.

Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991


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Since its founding in 1996 by environmental leader Donella Meadows, our Institute has been at the forefront of sustainability thinking and training. Our initiatives have addressed economic, environmental, and social challenges from a range of angles and at many levels. In everything we do, the disciplines of systems thinking and organizational learning inform and shape our work. It is this focus on whole-system analysis, combined with careful listening, truth telling, and visioning, that make the Donella Meadows Institute unique among sustainability organizations.  Read More

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