As retreating Iraqi military forces exited Kuwait during the first Gulf War, they intentionally set hundreds of oil wells on fire. This 1991 incident led to months of Herculean efforts to extinguish these fires and cap these wells.
While the exact figure can never be known, it is estimated that this act of environmental and political vandalism needlessly burned one billion barrels of crude oil – with a value of many billions of dollars. The images of blackened landscapes and burning crude were some of the most haunting of the first Gulf War.
The 1992 Werner Herzog movie Lessons of Darkness provides valuable and sometimes-haunting footage of the brave work required to extinguish these fires – it should be required viewing for everyone in the energy industry. Check out https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/lessons_of_darkness_1995/ for more information.
It turns out that setting wells on fire may be the best environmental option in well blowouts. A recent article in the Journal of Petroleum Technology lays out the case that a burning well leaves little or no oil behind. In those very rare cases where a well blowout occurs, the plan that minimizes its environmental impact is to ignite the well and keep it lit until a relief well can be drilled to plug it.
No one wants to suffer from a well blowout – but when they happen, sometimes the best strategy is to burn the oil instead of have it fall to the ground.