Guwahati: A gas well “blowout” at an existing well of Oil India Limited (OIL) in Assam’s Tinsukia district on May 27 has left natural gas gushing out to a height of hundreds of feet, prompting the district administration to evacuate at least 25 families residing near the well site immediately.
The incident, that took place at Baghjan, around 42 km from Tinsukia and almost 500 metres from Dibru Saikhowa National Park, has created panic causing the employees stationed at the well to flee due to fear of fire. Situated near 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”.
With over tremendous environmental impact on the biodiversity of the area (flora and fauna), EastMojo spoke with OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika during the ‘My Report’ show on Friday evening. Here are the edited excerpts of the interview:
EastMojo: How long will the local population and the biodiversity need to suffer?
Tridiv Hazarika: Today all of us in Oil India Limited are feeling very sad indeed and this is not the right thing to happen in the company. On Sunday, we would be attempting the exercise with the combined efforts of ONGC to control the blowout and cap the well. The reason why we are taking 10 long days because an attempt as such requires a lot of preparatory work to be able to ensure that people can work in a safe zone. There is an additional risk of fire being ignited; hence all our equipment are needed to be carefully taken to that area.
We also dug a pond because we would be needing a lot of continuous spray of water when the actual operation takes place. We are still spraying water and for that, we needed to bring water from the nearby water body. We have also designed specific tools for the operation in our workshop which also took us some amount of time. Additionally, the monsoon season is also creating its own set of challenges. But more or less, we can confirm that by Sunday we should be able to make the first attempt. The foreign expert whom we have invited (experts from Singapore), that team would be reaching Guwahati on June 7.
EM: Don’t you think that OIL India has failed somewhere in the sense that we had a major crisis back in 2005 where there was a massive fire in Dikon oil well. Fifteen years down the line, we still do not have the presence of a national or global level crisis management team in Tinsukia, Duliajan despite OIL India having a massive presence in these districts.
Tridiv: The last major disaster or challenge we faced as a company was in 2005 when we had the Dikon blowout. Now in the last 15 years, which is typical to any OIL India’s oil field, there were various challenges which you must have read in newspapers. There were miscreant activities, pipelines being blasted, and then we also have our technical challenges.
All these were mitigated and handled smartly, swiftly, and in double-quick time by our team of experts. But this particular blowout is one such incident where not only OIL, not only ONGC but all the MNC’s across the world upon encountering such a situation rely on help from elsewhere. Moreover, these particular experts’ team who are based in Singapore is among the only three well-controlled companies, two in the US and one in Singapore. These companies do not only serve OIL but companies like us all over the world. Because we have our team, our experts in place, that’s why (not that we are happy that this incident is happening after 15 years) no one could hear any major incidents.
Additionally, ONGC and OIL experts always work together. Tomorrow if there is a crisis in ONGC, they also invite our experts as it is a learning experience for all of us. So they have not only come here to help but also to learn from the experiences. So this is a mutual sharing and learning which is understood between our companies. This is something major and we are sorry about the fact that this happened, it is a nightmare for our industry as well, but this is a hazard that we oil companies face through. We hope that this will not repeat in the future, but then when you have an oil and gas industry, blowouts are part and parcel of the business.
EM: Since blowouts are part and parcel of the oil and gas industries, so what kind of precautionary measure is the company taking for the future after this incident?
Tridiv: When 2005 Dikon blowout took place, it taught us a lot of things. Then we also had ‘Boots and Coots’ foreign experts who gave us a lot of suggestions by the time they left. Although we have experts spread in various departments and the crisis team formed when there is a crisis, but after the 2005 incident, we decided to have an exclusive set of officers so that they can take care of some of the equipment which is very specifically used only during the time of crisis.
In 2005, we had to get that equipment from ONGC but now all of that is available with us in Duliajan. Even the foreign experts who are flying down here are hardly carrying any type of equipment. It’s just their experience and certain additional abilities which will come to our help. But thankfully our management after 2005 decided that our crisis management yard is in good shape. So all these huge machines and pumps are kept in proper shape.
Experts are there in every department and they are doing their routine job and whenever there is a crisis these experts pull their resources and these team immediately acts. This is the reason that for the last 15 years we have managed the crisis using our own experts. As this present incident is very rare, we are praying that we don’t have to discuss these blowouts at least in the near future.
EM: There are huge pools of populations and villages which are being displaced due to the blowout. Will they be compensated in any way?
Tridiv: Our priority is not even the blowout as it is ensuring the security and safety of the community and the local population. For this, from Day 1 with the help of district authority, we have set up four camps and are presently working on the fifth one. Around 16,000 people have been taken care of. We have tried our best that they may get all the support that we can provide.
On June 6, we have decided that as an interim relief we will be giving them Rs 30,000 against each family. This is just an initial help as an actual assessment is yet to start as it is a multi-prong assessment. Forest department, agriculture department, horticultural department, animal husbandry, environmental experts all of them will suggest to us how best we can ensure and mitigate the damage we must have caused by now. And also to ensure that people can look forward to their future and we can help them.
I must also acknowledge that despite all the tremendous challenges and pains that the people are going through, they have been supportive so far due to the trust and bond that we have formed till now.
EM: You spoke about the human cost. What about the animals, aquatic animals in the National Park? What about them? How will the water bodies be cleaned?
Tridiv: We have already cleaned the initial condenser spill that was observed in and around the well. However, we have taken some certain initiatives this time and OIL has taken the help of two agencies, CSIR, National Environmental Engineering Research Institute based in Nagpur, and the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun for conducting detailed impact assessment study. These are besides the efforts already made by the government of Assam and the government of India on their own. But these two agencies will do a detailed assessment especially targeting biodiversity, sustainable developmental challenges, wildlife, etc.
EM: Also, about the interim cost which was mentioned in the press release on June 5, don’t you think it came after the protests of the local people on June 4?
Tridiv: When our chairman and managing director visited the site four to five days ago, we had one-on-one interaction with the local communities and the compensation/emergency aid was one of their immediate requests. This was also promised to them that we would address it as fast as possible. The only challenge was that we needed to have a detailed list of the beneficiaries with their bank account details.
We had also requested the deputy commissioner’s office to help us out by ensuring that all those who are in dire need of this particular relief has to be included in the list. So that particular activity took time as it was not in our hands at all. So yes, the local populace did stage a dharna on June 4 and was upset by the fact that it was taking some time. However, on June 5, a meeting was held at DC’s office and we have stood by all our commitments. So in one or two days, we will be able to transfer those amounts.
EM: During the lockdown period, the government of India through its Ministry of Environment Forrest and Climate Change has given clearance to OIL India for seven wells right inside the core area of Dibru-saikhowa National Park. Wildlife experts and environmentalists have said that these would be very dangerous for the National Park. Don’t you think that a well which is in the vicinity of the eco-sensitive zone of the National Park has created danger in biodiversity?
TH: We have been operational in that area since 2003-2004 and so we have been there for almost 15 years. Within these 15 years, there have been quite a huge number of footfalls in tourism in the park and so if our operations have been disastrous, hazardous, and dangerous, by now you would have seen the heavy impact. We are also not denying that this particular incident which is quite rare will not have its impacts.
So, whatever damage that has been done to the ecosystem due to this incident we would go well and beyond to try and repair that. As for the eco-sensitive zone and ERD (Extended Reach Drilling) permission, we are planning to drill seven ERD wells. When we applied this technology initially in 2016 to the government of India that there is a rich reservoir of Hydrocarbons beneath the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, it took us four years, several presentations to various agencies of the likes of the government of India agencies, environmental agencies and conduct various studies to establish the fact using this technology we will never touch the national park. We will be drilling vertically 3.5 km from outside the eco-sensitive zone of the park and then try to enter the reservoir horizontally for the displacement of around 2 km. So, there would be no OIL activity or operation anywhere beyond the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ).
Moreover, the definition of the zones is not done by us, and it is not only for OIL as it’s a national notification which was released by the department of forests, environment and climate change. So, there is this whole concept about 10 km of ESZ which is no longer sacrosanct. The new definition depending on the type of industrial activity even the starting point of the activity could be zero km from the edge of the ESZ. But as far as OIL is concerned, we will be drilling the well around 1.5 to 2 km from the ESZ.
Moreover, when we started taking permission from the government of India telling them how we are planning the operation and how we will extract crude oil or natural gas from beneath the park we went through series of presentations, questionings, cross-questionings, and valid arguments by the environmentalists. We have gone through the phase and it took us four years and finally, we got this permission very recently. But we are still saying whatever doubts anyone has we are going to answer them and even if that does not suffice we will take the help of those reputed organisations that are respected by all agencies.
Additionally, as a public sector, our CMD has gone on record and stated that we will never violate the ESZ and will not venture out anywhere without requisite clearances and permissions from the government of India. But more than that there is this whole concept of social license, OIL has been operation for 150 years in Assam. So we have been working very closely with the local communities and environmental groups as well. In fact in Sasoni Merbeel, it is one of the eco-tourism hotspots in the world now and its distance is just 300-400 meters from our existing oil fields. This is one of the eco-tourism projects that OIL India has promoted.
It is not the fact that we are committing to eco-tourism or protecting the environment but perhaps the overall impact of OIL industries on the environment compared to various other mining or extraction companies could be less. If you go to the Digboi area rainforests you will see 100-year-old oil wells still in function with the terrain not incurring any massive damage. So if we would have devastated our ecosystem in upper Assam for the last 60-80 years by now those results would have been in front of all of us. We as a PSU have absolutely no intention of working against the people on the ground, environmentalists, NGOs (along with govt. permission) to violate any rules.
Yet another important thing is that if we fail to extract the oil and gas, power companies, fertilizer companies would suffer. The entire economy of Upper Assam, Assam, and to an extent Northeast will suffer. And so if despite all our efforts of sustainable development if anyone sees us violating any norms and we need to correct our ways, we are always open to suggestions from all.