When Scorched Earth Meets Oil Reserves

4482067682_4bd41d6bf6_o-e1364595757961 Despite the brevity of Iraq’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the resulting war to regain Kuwaiti sovereignty, the seven-month conflict left a tragic mark on peoples’ lives and affected Kuwait’s natural environment significantly. While oil had been used as a weapon of economics or intangible coercion in previous wars, Iraqi forces used oil as a physical instrument of war during the First Gulf War. By dumping millions of barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf and setting hundreds of oil wells on fire, the Iraqi military caused significant environmental damage in Kuwait and the surrounding area. Despite the general success of cleanup efforts in Kuwait, the use of oil as a physical instrument of war in Kuwait should not be dismissed, and the threat of its usage in future conflicts in oil rich areas remains.

On August 2, 1990, one hundred thousand Iraqi troops began the invasion of Kuwait. Iraq’s military action was immediately denounced by all major world powers, as demonstrated by the United Nations Security Council issuance of Resolution 660 to condemn the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and to demand that Iraq immediately withdraw its forces.1 Disregarding this rare convergence of Security Council countries’ interests, Iraq continued its military aggression. It took only a few days for Iraq to overwhelm Kuwaiti defense capabilities, and on August 9, Iraq annexed Kuwait, including the Rumaila oil field and Warbah and Bubiyan islands, to its Basra province.2 Upon the invasion of Kuwait, the international community and most of the Arab world acted swiftly to show the unanimity with which they opposed Iraq’s military actions. Despite these efforts, Iraq refused to withdraw its forces and continued to brutally terrorize the Kuwaiti population. It became clear that further action would be necessary to prevent further military aggression from Iraq.

The United Nations Security Council issued Resolution 678 in late November, which offered Iraq a final opportunity to withdraw its forces from Kuwait.3 Iraq refused to withdraw its forces from Kuwait, however, causing the coalition to launch an offensive assault on January 17 in accordance with Resolution 678. The military response included a one-month aerial war and a brief ground war, which lasted for only a few days and ended with the retreat of Iraqi forces.4 By mid-January, faced with the prospect of inevitable defeat, Iraqi military forces engaged in a scorched-earth policy to destroy Kuwaiti oil resources. Despite these tactics, coalition forces prevailed and on February 26, 1991, Kuwait’s sovereignty was restored.2 Faced with hundreds of burning oil wells and millions of barrels of oil in the Persian Gulf, Kuwait and the international community began the long, expensive process of environmental restoration.

Among political and historical motivations for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, natural resources played a significant role in sparking the conflict. During the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq stopped drilling in the Rumaila oil fields and had even mined its share of the Rumaila oil field to keep it from the Iranians. Kuwait stepped up its oil production, pumping millions of barrels from the Rumaila field. In 1989, it was producing on average 1.8 million barrels a day, which constituted an excess 700,000 barrels of its OPEC quota.5 Angered by what he regarded as theft of resources and “economic warfare,” Saddam Hussein claimed that Kuwait owed Iraq billions of dollars for oil taken from the Rumaila field and in lost government revenue as a result of depressed oil prices.5 An invasion of Kuwait would serve as punishment for its disregard of quota levels and would send a message to other OPEC countries that overlooked agreed-upon production levels.

Secondly, Saddam Hussein saw great power and wealth in Kuwaiti oil resources. As of 1989, Iraq had 100.0 billion barrels of proven reserves. Kuwait, a fraction the size of Iraq, had comparable proven reserves: 94.5 billion barrels.6 Kuwait’s vast oil wealth was incredibly attractive to Hussein: if he could maintain authority in Kuwait, he would control one fifth of OPEC production as well as one fifth of total world reserves.4 Loss of supply to the global market and rising fear of conflict resulted in a higher price of oil, which in turn increased the incentive for Iraq to appropriate Kuwaiti oil reserves. The economic and political wealth that would follow from annexing Kuwait’s oil resources swayed Iraq’s decision to invade the tiny country.

After Iraq had invaded Kuwait and the international coalition had launched its attack against Hussein’s forces, it looked less and less likely that Iraq would prevail in its occupation of Kuwait. By January, six months after Iraq’s initial invasion of Kuwait and only a short time after international forces became involved,  Saddam Hussein threatened to use oil for self-defense.7 Whereas in previous conflicts, oil had been used as a “weapon” to compel countries to halt military aggression through economic or political coercion, President Hussein employed a scorched earth policy that uniquely relied on the use of oil as a weapon that caused physical harm to civilians and landscape. Beginning on January 23, 1991, Iraq began deliberately dumping huge volumes of crude oil into the Persian Gulf.7 Initially, it was estimated that Iraqi forces dumped almost 400,000 barrels of crude oil into the Gulf.8 By late January, however, the volume of oil in the Persian Gulf reached 1.1 million barrels and covered a 40-mile area, making the oil spill the largest in history. 9

Iraqi military forces combined fire and oil to create a devastating instrument of war. By late February, when the First Gulf War ended and Iraqi forces began to withdraw, 613 of the 944 oil wells operated by the Kuwait Oil Company were ablaze.7 Conservative estimates calculated that 1.2 million barrels of oil burned per day, costing Kuwait billions of dollars in lost exports and emitting thousands of tons of soot, debris, and dangerous chemicals into the atmosphere.10 It took seven months, until November 1991, for the well-control teams to get control of the fires.

The effect of the oil fires’ smoke on the atmosphere was anticipated to be catastrophic. Some scientists predicted massive smoke clouds to cause cooling of the Northern Hemisphere similar to ‘nuclear winter,’ combined with heating of the atmosphere due to CO2 production.11 They assumed dangerous levels of gases such as sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides threatened to poison many Kuwaitis. Fortunately, the oil fires burned more efficiently than expected, and dangerous chemicals were being combusted before they could seep into the people’s lungs.7 While the fumes and soot from the fires and resulting oil lakes caused mild respiratory issues among those breathing in Kuwaiti air, the anticipated global climate effects of the oil fires did not follow.11

Constant water movement in the Persian Gulf meant that Earth’s natural processes helped the environmental recovery process along. In 1991, beached oil was a prominent feature on the Northern Saudi and Southern Kuwaiti coasts; by August 1992, however, there was a significant visual improvement of the coastline.12  Studies conducted in 1998 found the Gulf environment to be fairly healthy. Coral reefs showed minimal damage; and while some sea animals were found to have oil-contaminated flesh, total populations were not significantly disrupted.7 Despite this initial optimism, Dr. Jacqueline Michel, a geochemist, explained that the cleanup process was not conducted thoroughly in all areas affected by the oil spill. As a result, despite the speed of the Persian Gulf’s replenishment cycle, much of the oil penetrated deep into the mud of tidal flats and was trapped in the bay. There, Michel says, “There’s no way to get it out.”13

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the resulting seven-month war significantly affected the natural environment. Due to Kuwait’s oil wealth and international connections, though, it was able to fund a thorough recovery process. A team was brought in to address the burning oil wells, and within seven months they had brought the massive fires under control. Fortunately, these cleanup efforts and the Earth’s natural processes swept out most of the poisonous gases and oily substances from Kuwait’s land, air, and water resources. Despite the generally positive outcome, it is crucial to understand the important role that natural resources and the environment could play in instigating and fueling conflict in the Gulf region and in other areas with vast natural resource wealth. Iraq’s disregard for international law about conflict and the environment revealed the willingness of leaders to ignore respected conventions of environmental protection. International law and norms against scorched-earth military policies may not be strong enough to dissuade leaders from engaging in ecological warfare in the future. In the Gulf region and wider Middle East, where many countries have vast oil and natural gas resources, the potential for tension to boil over and lead to ecological warfare could have serious ramifications for global climate, political, and economic systems.


1. “United Nations Security Council Resolution 660 (Condemning the Invasion of Kuwait by Iraq), S.C. res. 660, 45 U.N. SCOR at 19, U.N. Doc. S/RES/660 (1990),” accessed online at the University of Minnesota Peace Resource Center, October 4, 2012.
2. Crystal, Jill. “Kuwait: Persian Gulf War,” in Persian Gulf States: A Country Study, ed. Helem Chapin Metz (Washington, DC: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1993). Accessed online October 5, 2012.
3. “United Nations Security Council Resolution 678 (Concerning the Implementation of Security Council Resolution 660), S.C. res. 678, 45 U.N. SCOR at 27, U.N. Doc. S/RES/678 (1991),” accessed online at the University of Minnesota Peace Resource Center, October 4, 2012.
4. Yergin, Daniel. The Prize. New York, NY: Free Press, 2009.
5. Hayes, Thomas C. “Confrontation In The Gulf; The Oilfield Lying Below the Iraq-Kuwait Dispute.” New York Times. September 3, 1990. Accessed online October 4, 2012.
6. Stork, Joe and Ann M. Lesch, “Background to Crisis: Why War?” Middle East Report No. 167, November-December 1990. Accessed online October 4, 2012, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3012998 .
7. Hirschmann, Kristine. The Kuwait Oil Fires. New York, NY: Facts On File, Inc., 2005.
8. Apple, R.W.. “War In The Gulf; U.S. Says Iraq Pumps Kuwaiti Oil Into Gulf; Vast Damage Feared From Growing Slick.” New York Times. January 26, 1991. Accessed online October 8, 2012.
9. Joyner, Christopher and James T. Kirkhope. “The Persian Gulf War Oil Spill: Reassessing the Law of Environmental Protection and the Law of Armed Conflict.” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 24, Issue 1 (1992).
10. Sadiq, Muhammad and John Charles McCain. The Gulf War Aftermath: An Environmental Tragedy. New York, NY: Springer, 1993.
11. Richard D. Small, “Environmental impact of fires in Kuwait,” Nature, Vol. 350, March 7, 1991.
12. Readman, J.W. and J. Bartocci, I. Tolosa, S.W. Fowler, B. Oregioni, and M.Y. Abdulraheem.
13. Michel, Dr. Jacqueline. Interview conducted May 4, 2010. “Lessons learned from Gulf War oil spill,” The World, May 4, 2010, accessed online October 5, 2012.
14. Ibrahim, Youssef M. “Iraq Said to Prevail in Oil Dispute With Kuwait and Arab Emirates,” New York Times, July 26, 1990, accessed online October 5, 2012.
15. “Recovery of the Coastal Marine Environment in the Gulf following the 1991 War-Related Oil Spills,” Marine Pollution Bulletin (1996) Vol. 32, No. 6.

Colleen Wood is a junior at Georgetown University. She studies Science, Technology, and International Affairs, with a focus on the intersection between environmental issues and national security. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.