Leaking Oil India well that caught fire yesterday should have been flagged earlier

Serious observations were made about Oil India project near Dibru-Saikhowa national park

By Anupam Chakravartty
Published: Tuesday 09 June 2020
The Baghjan 5 oil well caught fire at 2 pm on June 9, 2020. Photo: Vivek Menon / Twitter

The oil and gas well in Upper Assam’s Baghjan that has been leaking for about a fortnight caught fire on June 9, 2020 afternoon even as experts were trying to seal in the discharge. At least four persons were injured and 50 houses were burnt.

State-owned Oil India Ltd (OIL), which owns the property, said on microblogging site Twitter that no casualties were reported.

Three experts from Singapore-based Alert Disaster Services reached the site earlier in the day, the company had tweeted.

OIL spokesperson Tridib Hazarika told a local channel that such fires were to be expected during a ‘well-killing’ (sealing) operation: “We had evacuated people from the site and disaster control experts were satisfied with our preparedness.”  

Locals, however, alleged that the fire has spread. “People living five kilometres away from the Dibru Saikhowa National Park (DSNP) are fleeing their villages, fearing the fire will engulf their homes,” Niranta Gohain, a local environmentalist from Natun Rongagora village, said.

The administration evacuated 2,500 families.

The gas well is a part of a field, with 23 such drills situated close to the national park. Following the May 27 blowout, the forest and wildlife department formed a 14-member committee to assess its impact.

The blowout

On May 27 morning, during work-over operations in the well, workers sensed an oncoming blast of highly pressurised natural gas and evacuated the site. Seconds later, around 10:30 am, people in Natun Rongagora village — about a kilometre away — heard a loud blast.

Tinsukia, a business hub 12 km away, heard the explosion. Around 500 families from the vicinity evacuated their homes, leaving their livestock and farms fearing an explosion.

Officials at the nearby DSNP recovered the carcass of a young dead Gangetic river dolphin and dead livestock two days later, on the wetland that falls under the Eco Sensitive Zone (ESZ) of the park.

For two hours, a 20-feet tall dark plume consisting of crude oil and gas moved along the wind under an overcast sky in Baghjan while flood waters from the Dibru and Lohit rivers inundated the area.

“Fire tenders and police officials reached the spot after two hours,” Gohain said.

After two hours, OIL technicians, with the help of the fire tenders, covered the oil well with ‘an umbrella’ of water to contain the gas leak so that it did not catch fire.

The incident occurred after drilling operations went on to tap an untapped reservoir to produce more gas, Hazarika said. “They were trying to drill a layer apart from where gas was originally found,” he added.

In hydrocarbon industry parlance, a ‘blowout’ is an uncontrollable discharge of natural gas from a production well. Blowouts occur every three to four years, according to Hazarika. Usually, such incidents are prevented by using Blowout Preventer (BoP).

Harried residents

As an umbrella of water protects the gas discharge from exploding, gas oozing out of the well becomes a mist of condensate. Even in villages five kilometres away from the site, residents have been scraping mud inside their recently-flooded houses.

Residents in the area are feeling cornered. After facing five stages of lockdown due to COVID-19 in which farmers could not sell their spring and summer produce in the area, flood waters have inundated their crops.

“If floods and coronavirus were not enough, this blast of gas has now thrown us out of our houses, damaged our crops, killed our livestock and now, no new crops will grow for a very long time,” Labanya Saikia, a resident of Baghjan village, who was housed in Dighol Tarang High School along with five hundred families, said.

Riju Chandra Moran, whose family of six depends on a small tea garden, betel nuts and paddy, has completely lost his farm.

Flouting of norms

Kamal Baruah, a resident of Baghjan, alleged that no environmental clearance or public consent was sought by OIL authorities while setting up the oil wells.

“They bought the land in a clandestine manner and set up the oil wells in the close proximity of the DSNP, which will now kill both people and animals,” Baruah said.

The previous visit of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) team to inspect oil pipelines near DSNP echoed Baruah’s assertion. MD Madhusudan and Prerna Singh Bindra, the then members of the standing committee for NBWL visited the area in 2013.

The team made serious observations regarding OIL’s activity near the park.

“We strongly disapprove of the current trend of presenting the standing committee of NBWL with fait accompli situations and seeking post-facto clearances for projects on which work has already been undertaken without the requisite prior permissions. The expenditure thus incurred, in this case, from the public exchequer puts undue and unfair pressure on the standing committee of NBWL to ratify violations of wildlife and environmental norms,” Madhusudan and Bindra wrote in a report submitted to the Standing Committee of the NBWL.

The 340 sq km national park and biosphere is the world’s only riverine island wildlife reserve. The park lies at the confluence of the Brahmaputra with three of India’s easternmost rivers — the Siang, Dibang and Lohit and smaller rivers such as Dihing, Dibru, Disang and others.

According to NBWL experts, the park shaped by these rivers, is spread over 765 sq km, of which 340 sq km form the core zone and is a maze of wetlands, alluvial grasslands, riverine forests, swamps and semi-evergreen forests, including the largest willow swamp forest in Northeast India.

Home to wild horses, DSNP has recorded over 40 mammals, 500 species of birds, 104 fish species including the critically endangered Gangetic dolphin, 105 butterfly species and 680 types of plants.

It harbours the tiger, elephant, wild buffalo, leopard, hoolock gibbon, capped langur, slow loris, besides critically endangered bird species such as the Bengal Florican, White Winged Duck, Greater Adjutant stork, White rumped vulture, slender-billed vulture as well as the very rare and endemic Black-breasted parrotbill.

Historically, the unmitigated Dibru Saikhowa was connected to the Dehing Patkai rainforest which extends till Namdapha National Park on the Indo-Myanmar border in Arunachal Pradesh. Ecologists consider the park to be a part of the Indo-Myanmar Biodiversity hotspot.

In January this year, the eco sensitive zone (ESZ) for the reserve was finally notified in an extraordinary gazette. The notification states that for the ESZ, the radial distance from the park varies from zero to 8.7 km.

Assam’s forest department made two drafts over the last four years to finalise the ESZ.

In the final draft, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (APCCF) MK Yadav made a presentation where he explained that the state board of wildlife was deferring its decision on finalising the ESZ because of concerns raised by OIL due to presence of the oil drilling wells in the vicinity of the park.

This is according to the minutes of the 31st meeting of ESZ held in September 2018 available on the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change's (MOEF&CC) website.

Yadav informed the ministry that the zero extent of ESZ (where the ESZ is non-existent) towards the southern boundary is the existing crude oil drilling site.

“Since the oil drilling sites were already existing wherein extraction was an ongoing activity, the state government considered the request of OIL and revised the extent,” the minutes of the meeting stated.

The new map published by MoEF&CC shows several existing oil drilling wells owned by OIL right next to DSNP. Gohain said he had counted about 25 such wells in the vicinity of the park.

Baghjan 5, the oil well that continues to spew gas and crude is less than a kilometre away from Maguri Motapung Beel, a wetland on the southern end of the park, that is an ecological attraction for birders.

Jintu Dutta, a local birder from Notun Rongagora said most endangered and migratory bird species come to the wetland. According to forest ranger, Jagannath Agarwal, Maguri Motapung is a part of the ESZ.

Recently, angry villagers surrounded the District Forest Officer, RS Bharti, demanding to know how the oil wells were permitted next to a wetland where the ESZ did not exist. The official has now demanded OIL to furnish the environmental clearance.

Hazarika, however said that all requisite clearances had been taken by OIL. “From the seismic survey stage, we had all requisite clearances for the oil wells in the Baghjan area,” he said.

Gohain, however said that oil wells were considered as Category A projects under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification.

“The wells came up in 2003 as a petroleum mining lease. However, under EIA rules of 2006, offshore and onshore drilling projects require public hearing and EIA should be in a public domain. But there was no public hearing and nobody has seen the EIA,” Gohain said.

Incidentally, OIL has managed to secure environmental clearance for seven new drills in the area that will bring oil from a reservoir presumed to be under the DSNP.

OIL officials said it would be the first time that Extended Reach Drilling (ERD) would be used to drill oil in India. “We plan to start the operations within one and a half years,” Hazarika said.

According to the official justification for the project by OIL, the well plinth of the Baghjan 5 will be one of the wells where the ERD technology will be used from a depth of 3,950 metres.

The press release by OIL said:

“Although the surface position of these proposed drilling locations falls in Baghjan area, that is, outside the boundary of Dibru Saikhowa National Park [DSNP] area, the subsurface position shall fall beneath the protected area of Dibru Saikhowa National Park (DSNP).”

ERD is a means to tap into hydrocarbon bearing sands (reserves) in the areas that are not easily accessible. By placing shallow and horizontal pipelines, oil companies have been tapping into larger reservoirs.

Activists have been alarmed by OIL’s plans. “We think that OIL had already started the work on ERD from Baghjan 5. We hold Oil India responsible for the blowout because they have started the work on the drilling underneath the park,” Gohain, who has been waging a battle to conserve the biodiversity in the area through eco-tourism, said.

OIL officials have already earmarked Rs 400 crore for the project that is now facing stiff resistance from people after the blowout. The area is dominated by the Moran-Motok community, that is threatening to launch an agitation while there is a social media campaign across the state to save the riverine habitat of endangered species.

The total reserve is 10 million metric tonnes (MMT) while OIL claims that it will be able to tap three million metric tonnes from under the DSNP. It is believed that the automotive sector majorly switching to gas-based vehicles would require 8-9 MMT of liquified natural gas annually in India.

In areas around the production wells in Assam, the hydrocarbon industry has brought a lot of prosperity but has immensely impacted many communities now facing pollution for more than 150 years since the first oil well was dug up in this region.

OIL officials said the pipelines transporting oil and gas were often violated by gangs in some of the areas where OIL operated. The condensate from the pipes is tapped and sold.

Gohain said after the initial promise of profit from the economy revolving around hydrocarbons, people had now turned to sabotaging oil pipelines.

Anupam Chakravartty is reporting with StoriesAsia

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