Blowout at Oil India well threatens national park in upper Assam

Condensate from the blowout has covered the water bodies, trees and tea plants near Dibru-Saikhowa National Park

By Sadiq Naqvi
Published: Saturday 30 May 2020
Gas continues to leak after a May 27 eruption in an Oil India well in upper Assam's Baghjan oilfield. Photo: Anupam Chakravartty
Gas continues to leak after a May 27 eruption in an Oil India well in upper Assam's Baghjan oilfield. Photo: Anupam Chakravartty Gas continues to leak after a May 27 eruption in an Oil India well in upper Assam's Baghjan oilfield. Photo: Anupam Chakravartty

At least 2,000 people have been evacuated as state-owned Oil India Ltd (OIL) struggles to control a massive eruption or blowout from one of its producing wells in Baghjan oilfield in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia district.

Natural gas continued to gush out from the leak for the fourth straight day on May 30, 2020.

The leak has contaminated water bodies that flow into the Maguri Motapung Beel, a large wetland, and the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park (DSNP) — both of which lie in the immediate vicinity, forest officials said.

“The well control operation is yet to start,” Tridiv Hazarika, the spokesperson of OIL in Duliajan, said.

A team of the OIL team along with a crisis management team from the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd (ONGC) and an expert team from ONGC Vadodara are working to mitigate the situation according to Hazarika.

OIL has constituted an internal inquiry led by its chief general manager. Tinsukia deputy commissioner Bhaskar Pegu said the administration would examine if there were any lapses on the part of the OIL but the immediate priority was to “avert any catastrophe”.

A 1.5 kilometre-radius area has been declared a safety zone, OIL said in a statement on May 29. Baghjan Gaon, the village where the gas well is located, has a population of 4,488 persons according to the 2011 Census. Locals have complained of damage to their crops and livestock.

“It is like a war zone for us,” an OIL official said on condition of anonymity even as he recounted how a previous blowout in Dikom in 2005 took over a month to control after experts from Boots & Coots International Well Control Inc were roped in.

Currently too, OIL is in talks with the company, in case the need arises, the official said. 

Hazarika said the teams were laying ground, setting up equipment for well control operations to start. Fire tenders remained on the site to spray water on the leaking natural gas to make sure it did not go up in flames.

On May 29, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal spoke to Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas, Dharmendra Pradhan and urged him to take immediate remedial measures, according to a release from Sonowal’s office.

Pradhan had a detailed discussion with chiefs of OIL and ONGC on May 29, according to an OIL statement.

“He advised OIL to take all necessary steps to ensure the health and safety of the local population. He instructed ONGCL to provide all possible support to OIL in this moment of crisis,” the OIL statement said.

This map shows the approximate location of the affected areaThis map shows the approximate location of the affected area

The incident

“It was a massive sound and every rushed out leaving everything behind,” said H Moran, the principal of a local school in Baghjan Gaon recounting the blowout that happened around 10.30 am on May 27 at Baghjan 5 gas well, that is part of the larger Baghjan Oilfield.

“As a result, the ongoing operations had to be immediately suspended and the well started releasing natural gas in an uncontrolled manner,” an OIL statement said on May 27.

“The blowout happened while work over operations were going on to produce gas from a new sand (oil and gas-bearing reservoir) at a depth of 3,729 metres. Earlier, the well was producing around one lakh Standard Cubic Metre per day (SCMD) of gas from a depth of 3,870 metres,” the statement added.

The accident happened after gas started oozing out from the existing sand which had been temporarily capped to start extraction from the new sand, according to the OIL official.

The official explained that the process to start extraction from a new sand in the existing well requires blowout preventer to be removed temporarily since Christmas tree (the assemblage of valves, spools and fittings on the surface) has to be reassembled.

“It appears that there was little time to react,” said the official adding how the gas started oozing out despite the sand being capped being a matter of investigation.

The gas well, which has been functional since 2005-06, had been producing one lakh SCMD, according to OIL. The discharge at the moment after the blowout could be anywhere from four to eight times of that, the OIL official said.

The Impact

Moran said the condensate from the blowout had covered the water bodies, trees and tea plants. “Our crops and animals are suffering,” Moran said adding how some locals had complained of headache and breathing issues.

MK Yadava, the chief wildlife warden of Assam, said the department was still assessing the damage to the ecosystem.

Officials on the ground elaborated on the situation. “A thin layer of oil can be seen even in the water body which falls under the DSNP,” Rajendra Singh Bharti, divisional forest officer of Tinsukia Wildlife Division, said.  

The park is home to at least 36 species of mammals including feral horses and at least 382 species of birds.

In the draft eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) notification of the DSNP which was published in May 2018, an Annexure listed out measures to be taken for safe oil and natural gas exploration in and around the ESZ.

The measures included a biodiversity impact assessment study around the Protected Area, the notified ESZ area, and any area falling in Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot and Notified Indian Bird Area (IBA) within 10 km of the protected area. It also said OIL and other agencies will follow government regulations.

Baghjan 5 well is around 300 metres from the boundary of the buffer forest of the DSNP and merely 900 metres from the core area of the national park, according to Bharti. 

The ESZ around the DSNP, notified in January this year, ranges from 0-8.7 km and covers an area of 658.251 sq km. 

The oil and gas wells are outside the boundary of the ESZ, according to officials. In the minutes of the 31st meeting of the ESZ Committee reviewed by this reporter, the extent of the ESZ was revised to zero km on the southern boundary on the request of the OIL. 

“Zero extent towards 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,” reads a government document which has details of the meeting. The Baghjan 5 well is 860 metres away from the boundary of the ESZ.

“The distance from the well to the core of DSNP does not matter anymore since it is the rainy season and condensate mixed with water is flowing into the water bodies. We are collecting samples,” Bharti said, adding that he has asked the OIL to submit a copy of the Environment Impact Assessment report of the Baghjan 5. 

A team of Wildlife Institute of India is also on the ground to assess the damage to the environment.  “The expert analysis would throw light on the extent of the damage,” Bharti said adding there have been reports of fish kills which are yet to be confirmed.

On May 29, the carcass of a Gangetic dolphin was recovered in the Maguri Motapung Beel that has been covered with a thin layer of condensate. “The post mortem of the dolphin was done yesterday. The sample has been sent for forensic examination to assess the cause of death,” said Bharti.

The wetland, that is fed by the Dibru and Lohit rivers, is classified as an important bird and biodiversity area.  “This sort of a leak would definitely impact the ecosystem of the region,” Rathin Barman of the Wildlife Trust of India, said.

A senior forest official speaking on condition of anonymity described it as a serious accident. “It could be catastrophic for the ecosystem,” the official said. “Poachers manage to kill one or two animals at a time. This could lead to many more deaths if not checked in time,” the official said. 

In a meeting on May 30, the administration told OIL officials to help them with mitigating the damage. An official who was present in the meeting said there were no clear answers as to how they will go about.

Hazarika, however, clarified that OIL officials were on the ground to assess the environmental damage.

The incident could put pressure on OIL’s other plans in the region. Earlier in May, it announced how the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had finally given environment clearance for hydrocarbon exploration in seven locations under the DSNP, an ambitious Rs 400 crore project.

After opposition from conservationists and locals, OIL had clarified they would drill at seven locations around 1.5 kilometres outside the boundary of the DSNP. They would get to the target under the park by way of advanced extended reach drilling technique.

These seven locations that would be drilled, also fall in the immediate vicinity of the Baghjan 5 oilfield. 

The OIL official quoted above said it will take another at least 18 months for the actual drilling to begin. “This is not the time to discuss that aspect,” the official said.

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