Fresh start for Kuwaiti oilfield

The world's worst oil spill was not in the Gulf of Mexico as many believe, but in Kuwait where millions of gallons of crude were deliberately spilled during the Iraqi invasion.

The Burgan oilfield, the second largest in the world, was destroyed by Iraq. Now, the landscape is dotted with hundreds of toxic lakes.
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At the heart of the world's second-largest oilfield, Burgan, lies a man-made oasis that is also a war memorial and a symbol of hope for the people still mopping up the world's worst oil spill.

They did little enough to cause it.

The hundreds of toxic "oil lakes" dotting the surrounding desert are a fetid reminder of the Iraqi invaders who torched Kuwait's oil wells as they fled.

The spilt oil mixed with the residues of salt water and chemicals used to douse the blaze has persisted for two decades, seeping into the groundwater.

Some of the toxins are taken up by the hardy shrubs that once provided food and shelter for a variety of desert fauna. Most of those creatures have vanished, as have the migratory birds from the dried up reeds that mark where groundwater breaking through to the surface was once sweet.

But at the Burgan Oasis swallows glide and swoop above the artificial lake while heron fish along its margins and crested hoopoe birds probe for insects around the bases of thousands of transplanted palms and sidra trees.

The Spirit of the Desert environmental project, which includes the oasis, "focuses on restoration of damaged sites" at oilfields in southern and eastern Kuwait, the state-owned Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) says in its social responsibility report.

The project "is characterised by biological diversification including greenery and live creatures", the report continues. It is also a "good example" of measures to battle the effects of drought and soil erosion.

The KOC logo depicts a large letter "O" for "oil" encircling a flying houbara, the beloved, once common species of large Eurasian game bird now nearly extinct in the Arabian peninsula. The logo suggests oil development and environmental conservation can go hand in hand.

The outlook for Kuwait's remaining houbara bustards, however, is grim.

"Burgan field is a main habitat in [the] Arabian peninsula for [the] houbara bird, which has no other habitat except in middle Asia", notes KOC.

But surface conditions in most of the nearly 18,000 square km covered by the field are not exactly conducive to sustaining large numbers of the bird.

Across its landscape march rusty pipelines, carrying an estimated 1.6 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude from hundreds of wells to processing plants, then on to refineries and export terminals.

The state of the pipes, a sorry contrast to the gleaming steel installations depicted in a KOC illustration of its "vision and strategy", is a reminder of the vast damage to Kuwait's entire oil infrastructure wrought by the departing Iraqi troops.

Two decades later, service crews are still testing the compromised pipes for cracks and patching them up where necessary. It would be a huge undertaking to replace the entire network, but one KOC may yet have to tackle.

Many Kuwaitis who live and work in Ahmadi City, the leafy administrative centre of the Burgan field and home to more than 2,000 KOC employees and their families, remain furious about the vengeful attempt by Saddam Hussein and his henchmen to destroy the linchpin of Kuwait's economy.

The dark eyes of our guide at the visitor centre flash dangerously as she stabs an accusing finger at the signed order to destroy the emirate's oilfields.

The document, recovered from Saddam's headquarters in Baghdad, is prominently displayed at the Burgan centre.

The importance to Kuwait of the Burgan field, which the US government estimates may still contain about 70 billion barrels of recoverable crude, cannot be overstressed.

Today, 65 years after the start of production, this old lady still pumps about 70 per cent of the emirate's crude, thereby supplying more than half of Kuwait's foreign revenues.

The Iraqi vandalism irreparably damaged Burgan's main reservoirs and cost Kuwait 15 years of production from the field.

Now KOC is spending billions of dollars to boost its flagging output, mainly by separating and reinjecting into the reservoir the increasing volumes of saline water produced with the crude from deep underground.

But it is not all bad news. The government is expected soon to announce a major addition to its official estimate of Kuwait's oil reserves, including 12 billion barrels of new Burgan reserves.

The US oilfield consultancy and services firm Greg Croft says only the four main sandstone reservoirs have been depleted. There are deeper, albeit smaller oil deposits yet to be exploited, and some thin layers of oil-bearing sandstone between the main reservoirs.

Not all of these potential oil sources have been declared "proved reserves" because advanced drilling technology may be needed to exploit them.

That is where the Burgan Oasis comes into play.

With its conference room and less formal majlis-style meeting area, its serenely located mosque overlooking the lake and surrounding greenery, and its airy pavilion on a small island, the oasis is also a corporate retreat.

It was inside the pavilion, which is connected by a causeway and designed to resemble a traditional Kuwaiti palm-thatched family dwelling, that a historic deal was signed two years ago by KOC and Royal Dutch Shell.

That agreement, under which Shell has brought advanced technology to exploit Kuwait's "difficult" northern gasfields, was the first signed under a new "enhanced technical services" contract model.

Senior KOC officials told a recent oil and gas summit they were counting on the new style of contract to lure international oil companies back to Kuwait.

The steep decline in Burgan's output from a peak of 2.4 million bpd has not gone unnoticed in the rest of a world thirsty for oil.

If KOC's strategy works, the decline could yet be slowed or even halted.