Baghjan Oil Well Crisis: From damaging the ecosystem to failure in controlling the damage

Well number 5 of Baghjan Oil Field in Tinsukia District of Assam, has been in the news for quite some time. The blowout of the oil well followed by an inferno has threatened the ecosystem and its endangered species, left many homeless and claimed two lives. From creating a grave consequence for the environment and human habitat in the nearby areas of the oil field to the technical lapses on the part of Oil India Limited (OIL), the incident has left many questions unanswered. Mumeninaz Zaman looks back at the entire episode of the Baghjan oil well crisis.

15 years back Assam faced a similar situation when a blowout occurred at an OIL installation at Dikom in Dibrugarh district, Assam. It almost took 45 days and foreign experts to stabilize the situation. Experts from the international agency Boots & Coots Well Control was roped in to control the blowout at Dikom.

Even though such incidents are rare, but the impact it leaves behind is indeed gruesome. The Baghjan incident rather speaks about the lack of OIL’s preparedness levels in controlling such an untoward situation. This also raises the question on the drilling and oil exploration in biodiversity hotspots which have led to a catastrophe.

Till the scripting of this report, in pursuant to the crisis, over 9,000 people are staying in 13 relief camps after the May 27 oil and gas blowout, following which a fire broke out on June 9 at the Baghjan oil well. This also led to the life of two firefighters employed by OIL. Experts from Singapore-based company Alert along with ONGC, OIL and NDRF engineers and specialists have been making efforts to cap the gas and oil leakage. Notably, the Indian Army also facilitated technical works to control the leakage that is expected to be contained in the upcoming weeks. Meanwhile, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on June 25, imposed a fine of Rs 25 crore on OIL for causing damage to the environment, humans and wildlife, over its failure to stop the fire at its oil well. However, it later deferred its direction for deposition of the said amount till the actual amount and its disbursement plans are worked out.

Earlier, the Pollution Control Board of Assam, PCBA has directed the oil exploration major to “close down” all its production as well as drilling operations at the Baghjan Oil Field. However, PCBA took a U-turn when OIL categorically denied the charge and claimed it has the “PCBA’s consent” for all its operations in the state.

Apart from that, the operation to control the blowout and fire in the well was halted due to incessant rains causing floods and damaging roads and bridge near the site. The technical team have been working on war footing to douse the fire and control the damage.

 

Source: Twitter

Damage has already been done

The Baghjan well is located 1.108 km from the boundary of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, and around 500 metres from the Maguri-Matapung Beel Wetlands, which is an Important Bird Area (IBA), and a part of the Dibru-Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve; both these reserves together, sit in the heart of the globally important Eastern Himalayas biodiversity hotspot, which is home to numerous species of migratory birds, rare wildlife and aquatic species.

The people living in the area are mostly dependent upon the wetlands, farming and rearing of animals for their livelihood. The continuous spewing of gas and oil since May 27 due to the failure of pressure control systems – sent a fountain of crude oil into the air, which has spread to the nearby areas while contaminating the farmlands, water bodies and affecting the health of both humans and the wildlife. Adding to its woes, was the massive fire that broke out after 14 days on June 9. Several houses have been gutted to fire while displacing people from their homes. It now becomes unfathomable as to how long nature will take to revive back to its normal state. The event has not just ignited an environmental crisis but has also turned out to be a humanitarian crisis.

In a report by Nabarun Guha, published in Mongabay-India, environmentalist Niranta Gohain said, “Agriculture, fishing and animal rearing are the main occupation of most people in this area. But now because of the oil spill, agricultural land will become infertile and no farming will be possible for many years. Also, fishes and domestic animals are dying in large numbers because oil has contaminated grasslands and water bodies.”

The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) has conducted an environmental assessment of the affected area and submitted a preliminary report to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, wherein it has recommended that the approved new wells and further exploration in the area should be put on hold until OIL authorities put in place their disaster-handling capabilities.

The report, which is the outcome of a survey done from May 29 to June 4 further stated that “The toxic fumes and oil coating has universally affected the area’s flora and fauna. The contaminants and oil are continuing to be released in the surrounding areas and immediate steps are needed to contain this spillover. The released toxins are known to have long-term persistence in soils and sediments, which will not only affect current life conditions but due to sustained release, pose a serious health risk for a longer-term.”

WII has signalled that the environmental impacts of the oil spill will linger on for long. As reported by the Hindustan Times, on the basis of WII claim, OIL said, “Whatever condensed oil had been released earlier has been burnt off. There is no contamination from it anymore. We are trying to contain the gas within four weeks.”

Who is at fault?       

Since, the spewing of the oil and gas, the PSU giant has become a debatable topic. The very first being that it was not just a gas well, but condensate- a highly volatile liquid gas-well. Eminent geo-scientist and oil well specialist, Dr Prodip Saikia who did an extensive research before the commissioning of the  Baghjan project in 2005, said to The Assam Tribune, “I insisted strongly that it was not a gas well but a condensate. We need to be very careful with the presence of condensate, but in this well it was dominant, however, my findings were apparently ignored. Drilling and maintenance of condensate gas wells required extraordinary precaution compared to a general gas well.”

Source: Twitter

Apprehensions were also raised by the public, over the maintenance of the oil well and hiring of private firms like M/s John Energy which was entrusted with the maintenance of the Baghjan Oil Well. Protests erupted from various quarters- locals, organisations, activists and even former employees on why OIL, an industry major, has to invite global experts to bring blowout incidents under control. The Indian Oil Workers Union (IOWU) has demanded that repair and maintenance of gas wells at Oil India (OIL) be done only by Oil India workers. Meanwhile, two officials of the OIL were suspended for alleged negligence of duty at the gas well site, while a show-cause notice has been issued to the outsourced private operator (John Energy Pvt ltd).

As reports suggest, it needs to be mentioned here, no drilling or exploration company has experts to deal with such a massive blowout. Moreover, there are only three companies in this world to deal with this type of blowout and experts from one of the companies Alert (Singapore) was roped in to douse the Baghjan oil well.

OIL is carrying out an environmental assessment while they are yet to reveal what caused the blowout. However, OIL’s efforts could not settle the apprehensions of the experts as well as the public at large.

Operations of capping of the well was disrupted because of continued protests by locals demanding immediate compensation and rehabilitation of those affected by the gas well blowout and fire. While assuring support to those affected, OIL spelt out the loss it has incurred in the oil production due to the protests.

In a press statement issued on June 28, it has said, “Due to stoppage/blockades, there was a production loss of 88 MT of Crude Oil and 0.13 MMSCM of Natural Gas as reported on 27-06-2020. Operations were disrupted in 13 Oil wells and 1 gas wells. Cumulative production loss since 27th May, 2020 due to bandhs and blockades: 8746 MT Crude oil, 11.25 MMSCM of natural gas.”

Source: Twitter

Why activists are angry?

A total of 46 individuals, members of civil society organizations and NGOs came down heavily on OIL over the blowout. In a statement endorsed by the 46 members expressed concern over the blowout and other ongoing extractive projects in the entire Northeast region, that has caused “adverse and irreparable environment and social impacts”.

They further added, “since a decade and a half, the oil exploration by Oil India Limited (OIL) and other oil companies has been going on in this highly sensitive zone. To tap the oil and gas resources, OIL even came up with an Extended Reach Drill technology, to intersect hydrocarbon targets far from the existing drilling well plinth. Using this technology oil exploration can be done without entering a protected area like the Dibru Saikhowa National Park, but oil extraction cannot happen without destroying the surrounding areas.”

It claimed that the OIL has failed to comply with the Environment Clearance report issued by the MoEFCC, even though it is aware of the conditions to be adhered under various Acts and Rule of Law. Although OIL was required to take adequate measures to avoid accidents during drilling, the May 27 blow incident testifies the failure of the precautionary measures.

Negligence and violations led to a catastrophe

In May this year, the MOeFCC gave environmental clearance for drilling at seven locations under the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. But the PSU giant maintained that it was not drilling in areas that fell under the Eco-Sensitive Zone.

Even though the cause of the blowout will be known only after a probe. But what appears already clear is that India’s second-largest hydro-carbon exploration and production PSU did not have an adequate safety and disaster management plan in place.

While the PSU giant needs to compensate adequately, it must be realised that no compensation can ever recover the ecosystem that has evolved over thousands of years. According to environmentalists, due to seepage of crude, condensate and other chemicals from the gas well, there has been large-scale damage to the ecology of the area. No doubt the extraction of resources is indispensable, but it should not come at the cost of human lives and environmental catastrophes.

Political bigwigs heaped the panic stricken people of Baghjan with promises and assurances who have been reeling under shelter homes amid the floods and COVID-19 pandemic. However, the need of the hour for the cash-rich PSU would be to work on increasing its expertise and capabilities to deal with such catastrophe in the future.

Image Credit: Diganta Rajkhowa