OIL exploration in Assam: But at what cost to biodiversity?
Tinsukia: From flying in four Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGCL) experts from Vadodara in Gujarat to seeking global experts’ help, the Oil India Limited (OIL) is going all out to control the gas well "blowout" before it turns out to be the worst tragedy to hit the public sector giant in more than a decade.
The gas well “blowout” at an existing well number 5 at the Baghjan oilfield of OIL in Assam’s Tinsukia district, situated in close proximity to Dibru Saikhowa National Park and the famous migratory birds habitat Maguri-Motapung Beel, has left natural gas gushing out to a height of hundreds of feet for the past six days, turning the entire area beyond a kilometre, including Baghjan village, into a “gas chamber”.
It all started on May 27, when local villagers heard a loud sound around 10.30 am, only to witness natural gas spill out of a producing well of OIL, and reach its optimum level within second. The condensate oil spilled all around was just the cascading effect.
Six days past the blowout, the spill of oil and gas continues, and so is the danger of fire as a single spark is all needed to light up the entire area - reigniting the dark memories of 2005 when the infamous Dikom oil fire raged.
What is a blowout & how did it happen?
Blowout is an uncontrolled discharge of gas and oil from a producing well spilling all over.
According to OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika, the producing well of Baghjan 5 under Baghjan oilfield suddenly became active while work-over operations was underway. “The work over operations was going on to produce gas from new sand (oil and gas bearing reservoir) at a depth of 3,729 metres.”
“Earlier, the well was producing around 1 lakh (100,000) standard cubic metres per day of gas from a depth of 3,870 metres,” Hazarika added
OIL struggles to control the blowout
The experts of ONGCL, flown in from Vadodara, and the ones already stationed from ONGCL, Nazira and OIL, Duliajan stations are yet to make their first attempt to control the well. As a result, the blowout continues in full force.
Talking to this correspondent, OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika said that the team has deployed their strategies and finalised their strategy to attack the well. “The presence of rig mast with structure and about 200 pipes on it is creating some hindrance. It is planned to make an attempt to place a valve over the well hole since the height of the Blowout Preventor (BOP) is more and cannot be placed. The attempt is likely to be made in a day or two.”
“The work for peripheral support system, including laying of water line, pumping and storing of water, laying of cables and arrangement of additional area lighting, etc, are in the final leg,” added Hazarika.
OIL has laid around a km-long water pipe line to draw quality water from the Dibru river as uninterrupted water supply during the operation to kill the well will be a key.
“The heavy equipment have been put in place, to enable the experts move in to start the operation,” said Hazarika, adding, hydraulically controlled remote valve has been moved from ONGCL’s Silchar station and is likely to reach shortly.
In the meantime, we are trying to prevent fire by an “umbrella of water” sprayed by two fire tenders 24X7, added Hazarika.
OIL seeks global experts help
Fearing the attempt may not succeed, the OIL has initiated communication with three global companies, who have the expertise to kill the well.
The vendors include -- Wild Well Control, Boots and Coots and Alert.
Talking to this correspondent, chairman and managing director (CMD), OIL, Sushil Chandra Mishra, said, “In case, the attempt by OIL and ONGCL experts fail, we shall get international experts to control the well. As backup plan, we are already initiated communication with three international parties, experts in killing well. They have been apprised about the situation and have been asked to send their action plan and timeline for reaching the site as backup plan.”
“In the wake of closure of international flights, we are in talks with the Central governments to fulfil all formalities so that the global experts can be brought if situation arises,” added Mishra.
Almost 15 years ago, OIL hired the services of Boots and Coots to kill the Dikom oil well after a fire raged at the well and continued for 45 days.
Red zone declared
The incident has triggered the oil giant to declare an area of 1.5 kms surrounding the gas well as safety zone.
On day 1, the safety zone was 700 metres.
However, locals, residing beyond the periphery of 700 metres, complained of strong smell of gas and oil after which on May 29 OIL extended the safety zone to 1.5 kms declaring it “red zone”. The entire population in the red zone have been evacuated.
Impact on local population
The gas blowout has affected more than 3,000 people from almost 700 families residing in the entire Baghjan Dighal Tarang belt.
The affected families have been camped in three relief camps - Baghjan Dighul tarang M.E School, St. Joseph School in Baghjan tea estate and Gateline LP School, Dighul Tarang.
Sharing the villagers ordeal, director of Rupkonwar Jatiya Vidyalaya, Hemanto Moran, who is inmate in one of the camps, said, the affected families are mostly farmers, betel nut growers and small tea planters. “The sowed paddy fields have been affected due to water contaminated with oil. The tea garden bushes, betel nut trees and other plants are dying a slow death.”
The farmers have lost their source of income and the incident has a long lasting impact on their lives, added Moran.
“The tin roofs of houses within 500 metres of the well have developed pores,” Moran said, alleging, that the spill seems to carry some acidic substance along with gas and condensate oil.
Moran said that though OIL is claiming that the pressure of spill has reduced, we are not convinced as the loud noise is the same since day 1. “In fact, the ‘affected’ area is only increasing with every passing day. However, the food arrangements at the relief camps are good,” he added.
BC Moran has lost all his livestock, recently-sowed paddy, small tea garden and betel nut trees. “Hearing a huge sound as if a bomb has exploded, we ran out of our houses leaving behind livestock. I don’t even know if they are alive,” Moran, whose house is near to the blowout well, said.
The story of every other resident living in the vicinity seems to be the same.
Hiren Senapati, president of eco development committee of Natun Rangagora village
President of eco development committee of Natun Rangagora village, Hiren Senapati, said, though their village is safe till now, but the smell of gas and oil is making it difficult for them to stay. “Several persons complained of irritation in the eye and headache,” he alleged.
Oil spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika said, OIL has made all necessary supports for stay, food (including baby food), water, toilets, electricity and medical have been provided at the relief camps with support from district administration and local organizations.
“A team of officials from OIL is at site to look after the relief camps. Ambulance with para-medical staffs are kept as standby,” Hazarika said, adding: Alternate relief camp at Bandarkhati High School, Bandarkhata village has been kept ready as standby relief camp to accommodate more people, if required.
Loss to wildlife and nature
Environmentalists fear that the gas blowout will have a long lasting and very adverse effect on the wildlife and the bio-diversity, the region is known for.
The death of a Gangetic dolphin at the Maguri-Motapung Beel - a wetland, which the locals have linked to the gas blowout, is hinting towards the possible threat to the aquatic animals and wildlife.
Diplov Chutia, who has been vocal on issues of environment and wildlife, alleged that the Baghjan oilfield falls inside the eco-sensitive zone of Dibru Saikhowa National Park and is just adjacent to the work famous wetland, Maguri Motapung Beel.
“If anyone's goes to ground 0 it will become evident how the gas and oil spill has adversely affected the wildlife, ecology and environment.”
“The carcass of Dolphin, the outer skin of which is peeled off, is a live example of the extent of damage,” Chutia said, adding, there is no doubt that the death of Dolphin is due to the gas blowout.
“The incident has highlighted the danger such projects pose to the nature, wildlife and national park and needs to be shut down. We cannot compromise with environment and ecology for the sake of economy,” Chutia, who heads Green Vision NE, an NGO based in Barekuri, added.
Senapat said, there is no doubt left in our mind that the dolphin died because of the damage to the environment. “It is the fallout of the gas blowout and OIL is solely responsible for it.”
A layer of oil can be seen in the water at Maguri-Motapung Beel. “The spilling of gas and oil has extended beyond an area of 3 kms, damaging the trees, plants, tea bushes and down paddy fields,” Senapati added.
“A dolphin died. Many fishes too died. Leaves of trees and tea bushes are burning day in and day out as if something has been sprayed on them. What more do the authorities need to accept the damage caused to wildlife and the bio-diversity,” Satyajit Moran, president of Baghjan Gaon Milanjyoti Yuva Sangha, questioned.
Sushil Chandra Mishra, chairman and managing director (CMD) of OIL
Addressing media persons, chairman and managing director (CMD) of OIL Sushil Chandra Mishra said, “We are looking into the extent of damage caused to wildlife and the bio-diversity. A team of OIL is assessing the visible and invisible adverse impact on the nature. They have been directed to rope in a third party to study the overall loss to the environment and wildlife.”
The district administration, pollution, forest and veterinary department are also studying the impact. We will also consider their report. “However, we do not think that the death of dolphin is linked to the gas blowout. We shall wait for the post mortem to come to any conclusion,” added Mishra
Guijan forest range officer Jaganath Agarwalla has submitted a report to the Division Forest Officer (DFO) and the chief judicial magistrate through the DFO.
In his report, Agarwalla said, “The oily water is floating down from the Dighal Tarang area towards Maguri Motapung Beel where we have found Dolphin and some small fishes dead. I have collected some scum from the Beel for sample. There is a defining sound emitting from the well site.”
Talking to this correspondent, Jaganath said, “I have forwarded the scum sample from the wetland alongwith Dolphin and fishes to the forensic laboratory in Guwahati.”
“The defining sound couple with oil and gas leakage will have a very adverse effect on wildlife, besides the nature and bio-diversity found in the area,” added Jaganath.
The post-mortem report of dolphin has not been out till the filing of this copy.
Dibru Saikhowa National Park
The sprawling Dibru Saikhowa, a national park, is situated in the south banks of the river Brahmaputra in the extreme eastern corner of Assam with an area of 340 sq km, and is a safe haven for many extremely rare and endangered species of Wildlife. In 1997, Dibru-Saikhowa National Park became the ninth biosphere reserve out of the total over 18 identified till 2017. An identified Important Bird Area (IBA), it is famed for the rare white-winged wood ducks as well as feral horses.
The forest type of Dibru-Saikhowa comprises semi-evergreen forests, deciduous forests, littoral and swamp forests and patches of wet evergreen forests. A total of 36 species of mammals, 104 species of fish, 43 species of reptiles, 105 species of butterflies and above 500 species of birds have so far been recorded from the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. Moreover, 25% of India's threatened bird species have been found in Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.
A paradise for bird lovers, this wetland attached to the Dibru river attracts migratory species – including ruddy shelduck, bar-headed goose, falcated duck, ferruginous duck, northern pintail, Eurasian wigeon. The wetland also supports endangered Gangetic river dolphins, several species of fishes and other aquatic and amphibians unique to the habitat.
Controversy over location of the Baghjan oilfield
Addressing media persons at its Duliajan headquarters, OIL CMD Sushil Chandra Mishra said, all operations of OIL are being carried out outside the ESZ as published vide gazette notification dated 28 January, 2020 by Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC).
However, locals, environmentalist and wildlife experts say it otherwise.
Diplov Chutia of Green Vision NE said, the gas well is merely 500 metres from Dibru Saikhowa National Park and falls very much inside the eco sensitive zone of Dibru Saikhowa National Park.
Forest ranger Jagannath said, as per Geo coordinates the well does not fall inside the eco sensitive zone of the national park.
OIL assets in Assam
The OIL has over 1600 wells in Assam, scattered across 8 main oilfields and several smaller satellite oilfields, out of which over 400 wells are active. This, added with ONGC asset in Assam, which is mainly spread across Sivasagar and Jorhat district, puts Assam on a higher place in the list of states which produces oil and gas.
According to sources, oil produces around 3 million metric tonnes of crude oil annually in Assam.
Lack of experts
The gas blowout at a producing gas well belonging to OIL has highlighted that the Navaratna company is yet to learn lessons even 15 years after the infamous Dikom oil fire.
Despite having massive asset and presence in Assam, OIL had to call in experts from ONGCL. First, they roped in experts from Nazira station of the ONGCL and later flew in experts from Vadodara station of the ONGCL, underlining the fact that despite being India's one of the biggest crude oil exploring company, they lack the expertize to handle situation of this magnitude.
Admitting the lackluster, director of operations of OIL PK Sharma, who flew in from Delhi, said, it is true we do not have the national level experts needed to handle such crisis. "We are strengthening our Crisis Management Team (CMT) to match the potential of that of national companies."
OIL orders high-level inquiry, Gujarat-based company served show cause notice
Public sector giant Oil India Limited has ordered a high-level inquiry into the gas blowout to ascertain the exact cause of that led to the blowout, causing a huge loss to the oil and gas sector company, besides affecting local population, wildlife and environment.
OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika said, “The company has set up a five-member inquiry to ascertain the exact cause behind the incident and also find out whether there was any human error in handling the work-over operations during which gas blowout happened. A showcause notice has been issued to M/s John Energy Limited, owning the CH9 rig, and actions will also be initiated on employees of OIL if there is any prima facie evidence of human error.”
The showcause notice issued to the Gujarat-based company, which reads, “Prima facie there appears to be gross negligence on your part for failing to follow standard procedure, carry out mandatory checks in compliance to safety regulations and take necessary precautions prior to carrying out wellhead operations involving nipping down of the “Blowout Precentor (BOP)” stack and or complete failure to recognise a well kick and take timely corrective action, leading to complete loss of well control and blow out of the well.
Clearance to explore inside Dibru Saikhowa National Park accorded to OIL
Earlier in May, the ministry of forest, environment and climate change had accorded environmental clearances to Oil India Limited for extension drilling and testing of Hydrocarbons at 7 locations under Dibru Saikhowa National Park, North west of Baghjan in Tinsukia district.
The ministry’s go ahead to OIL has been condemned by various environmentalists and activists across the state of Assam, who had warned for long that oil and gas exploration at Baghjan poses danger to the national park and the wetland.
As natural gas and condensates continue to emanate from Baghjan Oilfield, Professor of Digboi College Gauri Borgohain said, this incident has raised many question. “Can the companies guarantee that such incidents won't happen in the wells for which ministry of forest, environment and climate change has recently accorded clearance to OIL?” he questioned
Borgohain added, “Can anyone imagine the scale of impact if this incident would happen inside the Dibru Saikhowa National Park.”