1991 Gulf War Oil Spill

Nick Barber
November 23, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2018


Fig. 1: Bergan oil field fire. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On January 16, 1991 the UN coalition forces launched an assault against Iraqi military occupying Kuwait. [1] This attack occurred more than six months after Iraq and Suddam Hussein occupied and repeatedly refused to leave Kuwait. On January 26, the press began to report that large amounts of crude oil were being released into the Persian Gulf.

The Oil Spill

It was revealed that in a last-ditch attempt to prevent U.S. forces from landing on the beaches of Kuwait, Iraqi forces intentionally dumped oil into the Persian Gulf. They released oil from eight oil tankers, a refinery, two terminals, and a tank field. [2] Since the Iraqis anticipated an amphibious invasion, they also dug long trenches down the coastline and filled them with oil. [3] The entire act of environmental terrorism released a total of 11 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf, resulting in the largest oil spill in history. [2] For the next three months, oil continued to spill into the Gulf at a rate of up to 6,000 barrels a day. [3] Furthermore, while the Iraqis were retreating they set ablaze a reported 732 oil wells. [3] When the Kuwait Oil Company first announced this in May of 1991, they calculated the oil wells were burning as many as 6 million barrels a day (see Fig. 1).

The Cleanup

The majority of crude oil that was spilled in the Gulf traveled south down the coastline. Most of it remained behind Abu Ali Island located north of Jubail, Saudi Arabia. [2] 706 kilometers of coastline in Saudi Arabia were covered in oil; 366 km were categorized as heavy and 220 km as moderate. Much of the cleanups were hindered due to wartime conditions and the reconstruction that followed. Oil continued to spill out of contaminated coastal sediments for over a year after the war; though by the end of July, a majority of the floating oil had been removed. [3] Lighter bits of oil continued to seep into the Gulf for over a year after all of the floating oil had been recovered. [3] In 1991, the estimated cleanup costs of the Gulf alone were $210-540 million. [2] If you take into account all of the burning oil wells, it is likely that hundreds of millions of barrels soaked into the earth from January to November of 1991 (about the amount of motor gasoline burned in California in 1989). [3]


In 1991, Iraqi forces committed one of the largest acts of ecological terrorism the world has ever seen. A year after Kuwait's libration, hundreds of miles of coastline were still slathered in over a foot of oil, and fires fueled a smoke cloud covering ~1.3 million square miles. [3] All of these harmful pollutants were in the water, land, and air. Some of the oil spilled deep into the sea, burrowing up to 40 cm in the sand and mudflats. [2] It remains there to this day. This disaster does not just highlight the responsibilities humans have in managing oil wells, rigs, pipelines, and tankers, it demonstrates how carelessness with a non-renewable energy source and pollutant, purposeful or not, can have devastating long-term environmental impacts that cannot be undone.

© Nick Barber. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] C. C. Joyner and J. T. Kirkhope, "The Persian Gulf War Oil Spill: Reassessing the Law of Environmental Protection and the Law of Armed Conflict," Case W. Res. J. Intl. Law 24, No. 1, 29 1992.

[2] J. Michel, "1991 Gulf War Oil Spill," in Oil Spill Science and Technology, ed. by M. Fingas (Gulf Professional Publishing, 2010), p. 1127.

[3] T. M. Hawley, Against The Fires of Hell: The Environmental Disaster of the Gulf War (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992).