It was a scorched-Earth campaign, the likes of which the world had never seen.
In January and February 1991, occupying Iraqi troops — under fire from U.S. and allied warplanes and ground forces — smashed or set fire to nearly 800 of Kuwait’s oil wells. It was a disaster whose effects rippled through a generation. Today, one man’s scheme for extinguishing the Kuwait oil fires has evolved into a bold plan to end the three-month-old Gulf of Mexico oil leak — by bombing it.
It’s a plan that’s winning more advocates as the crisis worsens. That wasn’t always the case. From humble beginnings in the mind of a young U.S. military officer, the idea gained legitimacy as scientists and engineers volunteered their time to study it. Then there was a U.S. government backlash that nearly silenced advocates. Then in late June, at perhaps the most critical moment, the faltering bomb scheme received a big boost from a surprising source. Wired.co.uk has tracked the explosive proposal from the beginning.
Our brief history of the bomb plan is based on interviews with key participants plus leaked documents and emails. It’s a story of cutting-edge science and advocacy meeting stubborn bureaucracy amid one of recent history’s worst environmental disasters. Mostly, it’s the story of an idea that has refused to die, despite all attempts to kill it.
The birth of an explosive idea
In Kuwait 19 years ago, as many as six million gallons of oil a day burned up or flowed in black rivers into the Persian Gulf. Iraqi troops also opened the manifold on a terminal used for filling tanker ships: some 250 million gallons of oil flowed unchecked into the sea. Combined, the fires and land and ocean spills amounted to one of the worst environmental disasters in history. It took eight months of dangerous labour by international specialists to cap the wells, and a precision bombing run by the U.S. Air Force to destroy the manifold.
The Kuwaiti oil disaster weighed heavily on Franz Gayl, at the time a young U.S. Marine Corps captain assigned to a training base in Virginia. Unable to deploy with the fighting forces owing to his training obligations, Gayl was desperate for some way to contribute to the war. He’d always had an interest in science and engineering; watching the oil crisis unfold on television, he saw an opportunity help. Riffing on the manifold strike, Gayl hurriedly conceived a plan for sealing the leaking wells using aerial bombs dropped by Air Force B-52 bombers. The blasts from a succession of bombs would create a “crimp or break in [the] oil well to reduce or stop [the] oil flow,” Gayl scrawled on his hand-drawn presentation (available to see at the end of this article).
Gayl’s proposal disappeared into the military bureaucracy, never to reappear. In any event, an aerial well-crimping campaign proved unnecessary as an legion of civilian specialists descended on Kuwait. “At least I felt better, like I had done my part,” Gayl told Wired.co.uk
Old idea, new crisis
The idea lingered in the back of Gayl’s mind as he rose through the ranks, earned several academic degrees and retired from active duty, beginning a second career as a science advisor to the military. Gayl watched with a familiar sense of frustration as an 20 April explosion on a BP-owned oil rig on the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people and resulted in a million-gallon-per-day oil leak a mile underwater.