The Gulf

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:10 pm on 19th December 1990.

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Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow 11:10 pm, 19th December 1990

To ask the Prime Minister, pursuant to the answer of the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) of 13 November, Official Report, column 446, if he will specify those figures which he possesses relating to oil stocks, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide which differ from those given by King Hussein, showing in each case the comparable figures and the source for those which he uses."

The Prime Minister replied: No, Sir. The calculations rest on assumptions about the consequences of a conflict in the Gulf which, by their nature, are not quantifiable. The best way to avoid any adverse consequences is for Saddam Hussein to comply with the United Nations resolutions in full. The assertions may not be exactly quantifiable, but simply to say that they are not quantifiable will not do.

I asked the following supplementary: Is not the spine-chilling truth that no mining engineer, no scientist and no politician knows for certain what will occur if 300 deep-mined oil wells are detonated? In those circumstances, might not the fires rage for months, if not years, in a fashion quite outside human experience? In view of that, should not the damage to the planet, let alone the human slaughter and the Arab ecological disaster, rule out any talk of a military option? The Prime Minister replied: As the hon. Gentleman says, no one can be absolutely and precisely certain about the outcome. Insofar as it is possible to make an assessment, we see no reason to agree with any of the views put forward thus far as to what the outcome might be. This is not adequate, because in my original question I had asked about the figures relating to oil stocks, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide which differ from those given by King Hussein, showing in each case the comparable figures and the source for those which he uses. The Prime Minister might have been a bit more forthcoming about his sources.

After my question, the hon. Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark), a parliamentary colleague whom I respect greatly, also asked a question: Is my right hon. Friend aware that last week I visited the Council for Higher Education in Amman, where the calculations were carried out for King Hussein? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the horrors of war, whether human or environmental, should be made abundantly plain to Saddam Hussein in particular? The Prime Minister replied: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about that, but on the assumptions that King Hussein used, we believe that some of the difficulties to which he referred would not be precisely as described." —[Official Report, 11 December 1990; Vol. 182, c. 814.] The Government must be far more forthcoming. I can understand the Prime Minister not going further, given the nature of Prime Minister's Question Time, and his crisp answering, but tonight the Minister has an opportunity to tell us a bit about the sources, and why he does not accept the King of Jordan's figures.

My sources tell a different story. For example, there is Dave Matthews, who is a full-time officer of the Fire Brigades Union. When I made inquiries of him, he asked me whether I remembered the fire at Thorne colliery, in Yorkshire. As you come from near Doncaster, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you may know a good deal about this. It may be within your recollection that the British fire brigade, probably the most efficient in Europe, had to call in the Red Adair team to do something about that fire. As my friends in the Fire Brigades Union said, if they had to do that for what was a comparatively minor fire, who will put out a massive conflagration in Kuwait? That is a good question.

I then went, naturally, to BP, which has known me for a quarter of a century as I represent many of those who work at Grangemouth. I have had excellent relations with the company and it did me the courtesy of sending me a representative at the most senior level. He is a managing director who had been general manager in Kuwait, and was in charge, as an engineer, of the most awkward fire in the middle east in the 1970s. He told me that the Red Adair team was not the only one of its type and that there were various ways of extinguishing fires, including the blowing-up method. He said, "Yes, we could cope; but with how many fires would we have to cope at the same time?" I am open to contradiction, but has there been a time when there have been more than two major oil fires raging at the same time? It is extremely difficult to dampen down and extinguish such fires. It would be even more difficult if, dare I say it, a military conflict were taking place on top of an oilfield.

Shell went to great trouble. It consulted the expertise that was available to it, both in this country and in the Netherlands, and said that the general view was, "We simply do not know." No one in the world before has ever detonated oil wells on purpose.

Furthermore, there is the problem of fire fighting in the waters of the Gulf. Much of the previous debate was about the Piper Alpha disaster. What would happen in the shallow waters of the Gulf, where fire is more uncontrollable than in the North sea, if there were to be a major Iraqi effort to set the Gulf ablaze? I am told that that would be only too likely to happen. Some of us remember the Torrey Canyon and all the difficulties that ensued as a result of that episode. The scale of that disaster might be multiplied.

Do not let us imagine that Saddam Hussain would not do it. He has shown before that he is capable of bringing the temple down with him. That may not be the basis of what we call western rationality, but on that basis we might not be having this debate nor facing the circumstances that have led to its taking place. I quote Al-Jumhouriya of 8 November. It stated that Iraq threatened to turn the Arabian peninsula into ashes and the Saudi oilfields into a sea of fire if it was attacked. It said: The mother of all battles is nearer today. It commented that only Medina and Mecca would be spared and added: If the fire of aggression is unleashed against Iraq, flames will burn in every direction. Apparently the Iraqis have sets of sealed orders in case of war.

I do not think that there is much doubt that the Iraqis could do it and would do it. Their history shows that they have not made claims of that sort that they could not put into effect. What are the Government doing to find out?

On 29 November, I asked the Prime Minister if he will discuss the ecological consequences of a military option in the Gulf with President Bush. The Prime Minister replied: I have no plans to do so."—[Official Report, 29 November 1990; Vol. 181, c. 466.] After August, September, October and November, surely the Government should have made some effort to establish a rather more detailed view of the scenario that I and others—others with real expert qualifications--have been painting.

On 16 November, I asked the Foreign Secretary whether the United Nations has any plans to assess the safety and security implications for the oilfields in the Gulf area of possible conflagration. The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Mr. Lennox-Boyd), replied: We are not aware of any United Nations plans to carry out such an assessment. For our part, we are fully aware that hostilities in the Gulf would have serious consequences of many kinds. Hence our determination to bring maximum pressure to bear on Saddam Hussein to comply with the Security Council resolutions in order to resolve the crisis." —[Official Report, 16 November 1990; Vol. 180, c. 261.] I think that the Government might show a little more curiosity. Even if 30 of the 300 oil wells in Kuwait deep mined by Iraq were ignited after detonation, the emissions of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide would pass internationally accepted safety standards by a factor of hundreds. The skies would be blackened all over Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, the Emirates, the waters of the Gulf, and over most of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Iran.

For the past 24 years, I have been a weekly columnist for the New Scientist. Successive editors of that journal would not have countenanced me if I had been given to making fanciful judgments. The truth is that no scientist from a British university, no mining engineer from an oil company, no expert in any professional capacity from the Fire Brigades Union or any of the firms that are involved in fire fighting—Red Adair would not comment to the Library of the House of Commons when he was asked —let alone any politician, could tell what would happen if 300 oil wells were detonated. As has been pointed out, at the very least it would mean that oil would be $120 a barrel in Rotterdam.

War is a disproportionate response to the original outrage of invading Kuwait. We must consider the economic consequences. On 10 December, I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer what assessment he has made of the economic consequences of a military option in the Gulf. The Chief Secretary replied: The Government's firm objective is to resolve the Gulf crisis by peaceful means on the basis of full implementation of the resolutions adopted by the United Nations Security Council. To achieve this, it is essential to establish a credible military option, so that Saddam Hussein is left in no doubt that he is facing a military force which could compel him to leave Kuwait. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) drew attention in his autumn statement to uncertainties in the economic outlook generated by the Gulf crisis."—[Official Report, 10 December 1990; Vol. 182, c. 258.] It may be that the Government cannot answer the question; the fact is that they have not.

When we talk about the effect on Saudi Arabia, we must comment that military experts do not know how Scud missiles targeted on Saudi targets would be deflected. I am not surprised that tonight we heard that General Calvin Waller, the United States commander, said that he was not ready. The truth is that they are finding it more and more difficult. We delude ourselves if we imagine that we can predict that such wars will be brief, limited to surgical attacks, with relatively light casualties and with predictable consequences for the politics and economies of the countries involved.

The difficulty is something else. If there is not a relatively quick victory, we have to turn to the question that I put to General Colin Powell when he came a fortnight ago to Committee Room 14. It will be within the recollection of some 70 of my colleagues there, mostly Conservative Members, that I asked two questions. The second was whether General Powell contemplated the use of nuclear weapons. I prefaced that by saying that I was one of the minority of Members of Parliament who thought that there was no successful military solution to be had, but that I respected General Powell's sincerity about preferring the peace option to war.

Within the hearing of many of my colleagues, General Powell said that he did not contemplate the use of nuclear weapons, but he added that he could not rule out any advice that he might give in certain circumstances to the President of the United States. I believe that everybody in that room realised that in certain tragic circumstances the nuclear option was a possibility. The mind boggles at not only, for heaven's sake, the ecological effect, but the human effect and the effect on relations with the Arab world for decades, and possibly longer, to come.