Assam Blowout – Causes, Consequences, Way Ahead

Yet another addition to the series of industrial accidents and disasters plaguing India during the trying times of a global pandemic- recently dubbed ‘The Anthropause’. The Assam blowout that happened in May and the subsequent fires in June has claimed several lives apart from causing gross damage to the environment and the livelihood of the locals. This comes at a time when environmentalists are continuing to raise concerns about the draft Environmental Impact Assessment norms 2020. The current incident is presenting itself to India as a test of its ability to learn from its mistakes and prioritize what’s important in the long run.

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What is the issue?

  • Recently, an oil well in Tinsukia district of Eastern Assam experienced a blowout.
  • This well is under Oil India Limited (OIL)’s Baghjan oilfield.
  • It adjoins the Maguri-Motapung wetland and is close to the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.
  • The well had been spewing gas and associated elements “uncontrollably” despite the water being pumped in for 13 days, after which, on June 9, it caught fire.

What is a blowout?

  • The phenomenon of a blowout can be understood through the working of a pressure cooker.
  • When the pressure regulator on the lid keeps working, it releases the steam generated inside the cooker in a controlled fashion.
  • In the absence of the pressure regulator, the steam will spew out through the vent pipe in full pressure, making it difficult to control.
  • If a similar situation occurs in an oil/gas well, then it is described as a blowout.
  • An oil/gas well is drilled like a conduit into the formations up to the depth where geological models and interpretation reveal the maximum possibility of hydrocarbons.
  • This zone is called the reservoir in terms of geology and drilling.
  • The reservoir keeps the oil under pressure built up due to the depth from the topsoil.
  • The fluid, because of pressure, comes out with force when it gets a way out.
  • During the drilling of oil/gas well, a certain fluid of calculated specific gravity is pumped via pipes to control the flow of oil/gas from the reservoir.
  • This is done:
  1. To bring out the cuttings generated due to the removal of soil to the surface
  2. To maintain hydrostatic pressure inside the conduit so that it balances the formation pressure
  • If the formation pressure is higher than borehole pressure, oil/water enters into the borehole, which is then known as Kick.
  • It the fluid influx is not stopped, then all the drilling mud will be pushed out of the borehole and formation fluids will be flowing in an uncontrolled manner at the surface.
  • This is known as Blowout. It can be internal as well.
  • This flow of the formation fluid to the surface is prevented by primary control or the secondary control system.
  • Primary control is done by ensuring that the borehole pressure is greater than the formation pressure.
  • Secondary control is ensured by closing off the well at the surface with valves known as Blowout Preventers (BOPs).

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What causes the blowout?

  • Statistically, 90% of the blowouts in the world are due to human error.
  • Only 10% of the blowouts are due to equipment failure.
  • All operating companies have the policy to deal with pressure control situations.
  • This policy includes training of rig crews, regular testing of BOP equipment, BOP test drills and standard procedure to deal with a kick and a blowout.
  • The prevention of blowout depends on how early a kick is detected.
  • Since the kick occurs at the bottom of the borehole, its occurrence can only be detected indirectly from signs at the surface.
  • The rig crew must always be alert to recognise the signs of a kick and take immediate action to bring the well back under control.

What is the impact of the recent blowout?

There immediate consequences of a blowout are loss of life, rig and equipment, damage to reservoir and environment and the huge cost of bringing the well under control again. The recent blowout faced the following consequences:

Impact on people:

  • More than 1,000 families with 2,500 to 3,000 people have been evacuated to relief camps.
  • They have complained about symptoms like burning of eyes, headache etc.
  • The impact of fire has especially been severe on the residents of Baghjan village, located around 1 kilometre from the site, who were already living in a relief camp following the blowout on 27th May, amid the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.

Impact on Tea Industry:

  • Tea and oil are among the major source of income for Assam.
  • Therefore, they have coexisted since the early 19th
  • The tea estates and oilfields, especially in Upper Assam, have grown side by side.
  • The state government, to ensure the economic growth, had bought a significant portion of garden lands to facilitate exploration and digging of oilfields.
  • The Baghjan incident has a serious impact on the soil and environment in and around the tea estates.
  • If the oil spills on the tea gardens, there would be a significant impact on the tea industry, as it would affect productivity and sales because of contamination.
  • This may also affect the livelihood of all those dependent on tea estate for their income.
  • The state government, therefore, needs to adopt a long-term mechanism to mitigate similar crises in future.

Impact on nearby villages:

  • While Baghjan village has been the worst affected due to its close proximity to the well, the nearby villages have also been impacted.
  • Droplets of condensate (the residue from gas condensing after coming in contact with water) have reportedly spread to a radius of 5km, falling on trees, tea gardens, grasslands, water bodies and on the roofs of houses.
  • The government has not addressed the issues faced by the villages downstream.

Impact on soil and water bodies:

  • Agriculture, fishing and animal rearing are the main occupation of the majority of people in the affected area.
  • The oil spill may make agricultural land infertile and no farming would be possible for many years.
  • There are cases of large-scale deaths of domestic animals and fishes because the oil has contaminated grasslands and water bodies.
  • The fertility of the affected land can be regained by decomposition of hydrocarbon by using technology. However, it is a costly process.

Impact on biodiversity:

  • The Baghjan incident has a significant impact as it occurred less than a kilometre from the Dibru Saikhowa National Park (DSNP) and only 500 metres from the wetland Maguri-Motapung Beel, an Important Bird Area (IBA).
  • These two form a unique biodiversity hotspot, where numerous tourists visit annually.
  • While DSNP is known for its population of feral horses, 36 mammals and 382 bird species, Maguri Beel is known for its avian and aquatic fauna.
  • The fire may have further damaged the ecology, especially for Maguri-Motapung Beel, making recovery highly difficult.
  • The State Forest Department has set up a committee to look into the impact of the recent blowout on biodiversity.
  • The OIL has approached CSIR-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun for conducting a detailed assessment of the environmental impact

Impact on oil and gas production:

  • Protests ensued following the blowout, resulting in disruption of operations in 14 oil wells and one gas well.
  • The overall production since May 27 due to blockade is 8,482 MT of crude oil and 10.85 million metric standard cubic meters of natural gas (MMSCM)

How did OIL get clearance to drill near environmentally sensitive zones?

  • On May this year, the Indian government granted environmental clearance to OIL for drilling and testing of hydrocarbons under Dibru Saikhowa National Park (DSNP) despite protest by locals and environmental activists.
  • The recent blowout has intensified the on-going protests.
  • This questionable approval is not unprecedented as India’s environmental clearance procedures have a history of being moulded based on interpretations and “national interests”.
  • DSNP and Biosphere Reserve are located at a point where three rivers – Siang, Dibang and Lohit – meet to form the Brahmaputra.
  • The DSNP consists of wetlands, swamps, grasslands and forests and houses several critically endangered bird species and endangered Gangetic Dolphin.
  • OIL obtained environmental clearance for projects to develop infrastructure for exploration and excavation of oil and gas within 10km of DSNP.
  • It had applied and received a Terms of Reference (ToR) for oil and gas exploration from the Expert Appraisal Committee in 2016.
  • The ToR required it to conduct a public hearing on the proposed project site. The OIL got EAC to exempt this requirement based on the argument that it had conducted a public hearing for another project in the same area in 2011.
  • After this, OIL submitted EIA report and the other required documentation to the centre for clearance in 2019.
  • The environment ministry objected to the EAC recommendation of environmental clearance to OIL without a public hearing.
  • The EAC maintained its stand on grounds that the project is of national importance and OIL had already conducted a public hearing in the same district.
  • However, the ministry asked OIL to conduct a public hearing and resubmit the proposal.
  • Again, OIL submitted the proposal without a public hearing claiming that such an undertaking is difficult due to ‘unruly acts by local pressure groups’.
  • The EAC also concluded the same by failing to consider the reasons for strong local opposition. It even took into consideration the economic and resource loss caused by the delay in public hearing – not only to the company but to the country itself.
  • Again, OIL got an exemption from conducting a public hearing.

How is the blowout being handled by the authorities?

  • After the blowout on May 27th, about 3,000 people had been evacuated from the 1.5km radius of the oil well. This helped reduce casualty damage. By the end of June, 11,000 locals were evacuated to relief camps.
  • After the fire broke out, the Indian Air Force and the National Disaster Response Force were deployed to the area apart from the firefighting personnel. Unfortunately, the fires claimed the lives of several firefighters.
  • The expertise of a 3 member team from Singapore’s Alert Disaster Control- a disaster management firm was roped in.
  • An OIL team also took several efforts to contain the disaster:
  1. Water was pumped into the well through casing valve.
  2. Equipment like the mechanical transporter used for controlling the well was tested.
  3. Debris at the site was cleared to enable the control of the gas release.
  4. A water reservoir was dug near the site and pumps were installed to supply sufficient water.
  5. The well was ‘water-jacketed’ i.e. encased in water to protect it from extreme temperatures.
  6. The presence of gas, the quality of air and water, condensate deposits etc. in the vicinity were monitored.
  • The Pollution Control Board of Assam (PCBA) had issued a closure notice to OIL. However, this was withdrawn quickly.
  • The National Green Tribunal had asked OIL to deposit Rs.25 crore for the damages.
  • An 8 member committee headed by Justice B P Katakey was constituted to probe into the incident.
  • Various other players are also assessing the situation– a high-level committee from the union petroleum ministry, 2 state-level committees, seismological assessments being conducted by CSIR institutes, assessment of the impact of vegetation by Assam Agricultural University, etc.

What are the challenges in controlling the situation?

  • Though the peripheral fires were controlled, the main fire continued to pose a challenge to the authorities.
  • The floods prevailing in Assam have added to the woes. The rising waters have damaged bridges and several of the transportation routes to the disaster site. Only a narrow passage currently remains accessible for the authorities. This is making it difficult for the transportation of personnel and equipment to the site.
  • Bringing in the experts from Singapore was much delayed due to the visa clearance and other such processes. This was especially worsened by the restricted air travel prevailing across the world.
  • The fires have already claimed several lives. Its long term impacts on people’s health remain to be seen.
  • The evacuees continue to remain in relief camps amid a worldwide pandemic. This is a serious cause of concern as a cure for the COVID-19 is yet to be found and a breakout is the last thing needed.
  • There is a need to compensate the affected people. The people’s livelihood is at stake too.
  • The full extent of the environmental impact is still unknown. The area is already losing rare animals like the Gangetic Dolphin.

What can be the way forward?

  • During the oil wells accident in Iraq in 2003, experts put forth the 4 most important steps needed to control an oil well fire:
  1. Clearing debris from the well to improve access
  2. Clear a way so that the leaking oil can shoot straight up into the air. This will prevent oil pooling on the ground and massive fires and make it easier for the firefighters to tackle it from all sides.
  3. Extinguish the fire and cool down the vicinity
  4. Cap the well
  • The oil and gas well workers must be trained to operate correctly. Training and test drills play a major role in preventing such incidents as equipment failure is the cause for blowouts only in few cases.
  • The personnel must be trained and made aware of the standard protocol to be followed in case of such accidents.
  • In general, all operators are given training in well-controlled operations to operate wells and prevent blowouts.
  • The International Well Control Forum (IWCF) and International Association of Drilling Contractors (IWCF) well control schools are widely recognised institutes that train operators for well control operations.
  • The process by which EIA reports are produced must be revamped. Conflict of interest is a major concern here. The assessment must be made in an honest and comprehensive manner. Unfortunately, the current draft EIA 2020 norms don’t inspire much confidence.
  • The current case vividly illustrates the importance of participation of the public and environmental experts and activists. Public hearings must be made mandatory.
  • There is a dire need to strengthen the environmental clearance process. It must be kept in mind that preserving the environment and the livelihood of the common man are projects of national interest too. The authorities should stop relying on post-facto approvals.
  • The disbursal of compensation and rehabilitation services to the affected persons must be expedited- especially given the crisis created by the pandemic. However, we must move away from the currently used ‘pollute and pay’ principle.
  • The current series of industrial disasters show that it’s high time to shift residential areas and such high-risk projects away from each other.
  • Establishment of projects deleterious to the environment should not be permitted easily – especially in the vicinity of ecologically sensitive zones.
  • Equal importance must be given to accessing the impact of the accident on wildlife. Veterinarians must be employed to treat ailing animals to prevent large scale animal life-loss.
  • It is past time that India shifts to clear fuel sources. Dependence on crude oil and gas must be weaned off.

Conclusion:

The Assam blowout incident is an illustration of India’s lax regulation of environmentally deleterious and accident-prone projects. However, the timing of the incident may be considered as a silver lining – given the draft EIA norms are still receiving public feedback. Incidentally, a similar oil and gas project of OIL in the same district is under consideration. How the current situation is handled and how the project proposal is processed will show how much of a lesson India has learnt from the blowout.

Practice question for mains:

Compare the importance of self-reliance for fuel and environmental conservation in the context of Assam blowout. (250 words)

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