South Rumiela Oil Field, Iraq -- The two dozen British Royal Engineers who swept through here late last week didn't know much about oil fields just a few weeks ago. That quickly changed, thanks in large part to a handful of U.S. and British oil companies.
The oil industry has gone to great lengths to distance itself from any planning related to the potential post-war opening of Iraq's massive fields, now partly in U.S. and British hands. But it is becoming clear that a number of companies played significant advisory roles in military operations taking place on those fields, underscoring an unusual partnership between the military and private companies in the Iraq campaign.
BP PLC employees in Kuwait showed the Royal Engineers and other combat troops how oil fields operate before their assault on South Rumeila, along the Kuwaiti border. Houston fire-fighting firm Boots & Coots International Well Control Inc. helped draw up emergency and contingency plans for securing the field, and private-sector U.S. oil executives, serving as U.S. reserve officers, ran soldiers and combat engineers through fields in West Texas in preparation for the attack. There is no evidence that any of the firms were paid for their oil-field advice, but coalition military engineers considered the advice critical.
"We leveraged the private sector," said Brig. Gen. Robert Crear, commander of the Southwestern Division of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is spearheading reconstruction efforts in Iraq.
Quickly restoring Iraqi oil production, of about two million barrels a day, or nearly 3% of world consumption, is important to the oil industry's ability to adequately supply world markets amid currently tight supplies. As a first step, Kuwaiti and U.S. firefighters have begun efforts to extinguish the handful of wells that were torched by retreating Iraqi forces.
Army engineers have been working with Halliburton Co. subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root for months, drafting a plan of action for rebuilding Iraq's oil infrastructure. The Army Corps of Engineers plans to dole out other contracts to oil-field service companies in the days and weeks ahead.
But it is now apparent that oil companies have played a greater behind-the-scenes role in military planning than previously known. For centuries, private companies and citizens have volunteered to help their governments in time of war. But Iraqi oil -- a primary focus of the Pentagon's military campaign -- has been a thorny political issue for the Bush administration, which has strong ties to the oil industry. Vice President Dick Cheney ran Halliburton until 2000, for instance, when he resigned to run for office. He has since divested his stock in the company.
With the Bush administration eager to avoid accusations that it is going to war for oil -- and executives sensitive to appearing opportunistic as soldiers fight and die in Iraq -- companies have shied away from talking about their discussions with U.S. or British officials concerning Iraqi oil.
BP, the London oil giant, helped train the British engineers who swept in behind U.S. Marines in the first hours of the Iraqi invasion, according to U.K. and U.S. combat engineers here. BP representatives spent several days briefing a handful of military officers and about 20 enlisted engineers of the 516 Specialist Team Royal Engineers (Bulk Petroleum) on basic oil-field procedures.
BP officials declined to comment on the company's role.
At dusk on the first day of the ground invasion, U.S. Marines in tanks and armored vehicles crossed into Iraq, drove out Iraqi soldiers and largely secured South Rumeila, Iraq's second-largest oil field. British mine clearers and the Royal Engineers followed, fanning out to the field's 17 gas-oil separator plants and five pumping stations. The engineers shut down pumps and closed valves, which stopped oil flowing in the field. That shut-off will allow ordnance experts and private contractors to safely check the facilities for sabotage. Military officials identified nine wells they believe were set on fire by retreating Iraqi forces, and they said other wells had been mined by Iraqi troops but not yet detonated.
The Royal Engineers team, which usually builds military fuel terminals and pipelines, practiced at wells, pumping stations and processing plants across the border in Kuwait. Workers from the state-run Kuwait Oil Co. showed them around the emirate's Burgan field, which resembles the vast, scrub-covered desert landscape here in Iraq. "They spent a lot of time with KOC and BP and with [U.S.] reservists" with oil-field experience, said Maj. Graham Prowse, a Royal Engineers officer who stayed behind to secure the fields as his men continued north through Iraq.
British military engineers here said reservists recently retired from Royal Dutch/Shell Group also helped in their training, which began at the U.K. military team's headquarters in Nottingham, England. A Shell spokeswoman said she wasn't aware of any assistance given to soldiers by current employees.
The Pentagon tapped Boots & Coots last fall to help out with contingency planning in case Saddam Hussein ordered his troops to set oil fields on fire, as Iraqi soldiers did in Kuwait in 1991. Brian Krause, president of Boots & Coots, made trips to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., to brief top brass long before his company was subcontracted by Kellogg Brown & Root to provide fire-fighting services in Iraq. "It wasn't so much training as it was informing" the military about what could go wrong in the fields, he said.
Mr. Krause, who helped battle the 1991 Kuwaiti well fires, said he prepared basic memos for officers explaining how oil fields work and how to identify toxic gases in the field. His memos were boiled down and printed on laminated cards, which soldiers carried into battle, he said. "I sent them, for lack of a better word, the `idiot's-guide' version of the oil fields," he said. Oil experts from Natco Group Inc., a Houston-based oil-field equipment and manufacturing company that trains oil-field operators, helped familiarize the soldiers with oil facilities. A total of 129 soldiers have attended training sessions at Natco's Midland facility.