Charred safety

Monday 15 August 2005

Recurring gas field blowouts in Bangladesh

a second blowout has occurred in the Tengratila gas field in Bangladesh's Sunamganj district in less than six months. Experts say the incident proves the failure of the country's energy ministry in making international oil companies take adequate safety measures and abide by local laws. The Tengratila field is a joint venture of the state-owned oil and gas company Bapex and Canadian oil company Niko. The explosion on June 24, 2005, came less than a week after a former minister of state had to resign for soliciting a gift (a luxury car, with registration papers in the name of Bapex) allegedly to favour Niko in settling damage claims over the January 2005 blowout in the same field (see Down To Earth, 'Flames of Neglect', February 15, 2005).

The latest blowout at Tengratila was the third in the country since June 1996, when the Magurchhara gas field in Moulvibazar district, being explored by us oil giant Occidental Limited, went into flames during drilling activities. As the fire continued to blaze even three weeks after the explosion, energy ministry officials tried to ascertain its cause and the extent of damage caused. Niko initially tried to play down the damage, saying the burning gas was from a pocket reserve not from the main field; Occidental Limited had used the same excuse in 1996. But the loss of gas alone might cost Bangladesh us $78,382,192 (Taka 500 crore). The blowout occurred during drilling on a relief well; the operation was aimed at filling a main well drilled earlier with mud and sealing it off with cement. Niko hoped to drill 466 metres in six-eight weeks. The explosion took place at a depth of 435 metres. Niko said the accident was triggered by "a sudden uncontrolled mud loss in the relief well" that caused "gas with very high flow rate" to come up through the well to the surface. "We did not have any option but to flow and burn off this gas at the surface...from top of the well through the rig. The rig eventually caught fire," company officials explained. But experts don't buy this view. The energy ministry has formed a committee to probe the incident. Mahmudur Rahman, who replaced disgraced former minister of state A K M Mosharraf Hossain, has said Bapex too can't shrug off its responsibility; no Bapex engineer was present at the site on the ill-fated day.

In the late 1990s, Bangladesh's political leadership viewed development of gas resources as a quick way to overall development and invited international companies to bid for production sharing contracts. Successive governments made claims about the discovery of recoverable reserve figures ranging from 50 trillion cubic feet (tcf) to 80 tcf. But geologists warned that this figure was actually around 15 tcf only, which could last just up to 20 years. They got the support of some political parties and the move to export gas was stalled, though us- based oil company Unocal, to which Occidental had sold its Magurchhara assets, had submitted a plan in 2002 to export gas to India.

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