Reading the press releases by OIL about the Baghjan blowout, Assam, India

“As a consequence, the ongoing operations had to be immediately suspended and the well started releasing natural gas in an uncontrolled manner.” (27/05/2020)

This is from an official press release from OIL right after the leakage started on the 27th of May, 2020. There is no mention that along with “natural gas” there was a release of natural-gas condensate, a harmful by-product of natural hydrocarbon.

On 27th of May 2020 gas and condensate started to leak from a well of the Baghjan oil field, located in the Tinsukia district of Assam, India. This oil field lies dangerously close to the ecologically-sensitive Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and the Maguri-Motapung wetland. The leakage went on for two weeks and on the fourteenth day (9th of June, 2020) it caught fire. The fire is still burning, gulping down houses and vast patches of the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. Yet again, we are forced to revaluate functioning of the energy sector.

Patches of Dibru-Saikhowa burnt from the blowout

Reading in between the lines of the five official press release, this essay will examine the secrecy behaviour of the Oil India Limited (OIL) in light of the Baghjan case. For the company, it appears that this disaster was less out about the event of blowout itself than how to keep under covers the private reaches of their corporate behaviour.

Secrecy behaviours are far more common around accidents. These behaviours are intentional and strategic. The main idea is to manage the impression made of others by limiting unwanted scrutiny of the “back stage”. Secrets are maintained regarding the exact reason of the leak to maintain the sanctity of objective and scientists at stake. Fear of stigma serves as the motivation of maintaining the “front” and “back” stages of the event, now commonly done by the “public relations team” or the “official spokesperson” through a series of press releases. These custodial documents are in charge of presenting the ‘partial truths’ in a calibrated way, often under the pretext of technical jargon.

Secrecy – Before the blowout

A closer look into their EIA (Environment Impact Assessment) report shows that there was a minimal push to resolve any potential blowouts before giving the clearance, despite this being a high pressure well. Section 7.5.3. notes:

“An appropriate Emergency Response Plan be finalized and implemented by OIL.”

This uncertainty could be anything. Propitiatory techniques that the company may not want to disclose. Or, simply reflecting gaps in the preparedness of the company to mitigate disasters. The EIA report shows a certain casualness – ‘whatever be it we will manage the situation’. This represents that even the regulatory stakeholders responsible for preparing the EIA report did not feel the necessity of putting in place the public and environmental safety at first. “High risk” scenarios are somehow confused with “impossible”, despite a case of such being registered with the company not far from now – 2005 Dikhom fire incident. No wonder an onlooker remarked “Civil engineers of this company receive paychecks for doing nothing”. The Baghjan event reveals this faith that when a high-risk worst-case scenario becomes reality, and no concrete mitigation plans seems to be in place. This perhaps could happen due to the surreptitious replacement of the New Exploration Licensing Policy (NELP) with the Hydrocarbon Exploration and Licensing Policy (HELP), along with the Open Acreage Licensing Policy (OALP) that eased much of the rules for allocation and access of natural resources. A detailed overview of the current political economy of the oil industry – “oil complex” – has already been outlined here.

Secrecy – during the blowout

On the morning of 9th of June, the well no. 5 of the Baghjan oil field burst into fire. Before that, the well was continuously leaking gas and condensate since the morning of 27th of May. The company had been using “water umbrella” technique since the leakage, but simultaneously maintaining that fire was inevitable. The fire took along two lives of firefighters from the company, injured a few, took home of hundreds, and marooned the ecosystem. The authorities maintained Covid-19 situation for their unsatisfactory efforts.

What we see unfolding through their official press releases is an attempt to play down the event and withheld key information. The public has been told that situations like these are common in the energy sector, and it is getting under control. They are deflecting from the main concern “How did initial the leak happen?”. From the very first press release on this event, it is evident that OIL does not want anyone to focus on this “how” question, instead of saying “suddenly became active”. It was presented as a routine natural event that had been unleashed with no immediate remedy. There was also an attempt to shift the blame to the third party despite themselves agreeing that the third party was under the supervision of OIL.

“OIL has already given show cause to M/s John Energy Pvt Limited and actions will also be initiated on employees of OIL if there is any prima facie evidence of human error for which a five-member inquiry committee has been formed” – 1/06/2020

Meanwhile, on the 11th of June, two officials from OIL had been found guilty and suspended.

“The workover operations were being carried out by Chartered Hire Rig owned by M/s John Energy under the supervision of OIL”. – 27/05/2020

A careful reading of this press releases shows that there have been procedural faults. As per OIL’s own EIA (Environment Impact Assessment) report of Mechaki Area (covering Mechaki, Mechaki Extension, Baghjan and Tinsukia Extension) in high pressure well, like this one, BOP should be installed in due process of well excavation as a secondary barrier, and not later. But this case points a procedural lapse as it says that only after the gas leak the BOP was being installed as a mitigation measure.

“Taking all adequate safety measures, install BOP (Blow out Preventer)” (27/05/2020)

Existing distortion, secrets, and blame games that is usual in the “oil complex” has been laid bare by this Baghjan blowout.

Secrecy – after the blowout

As the disaster unfolded, OIL took urgent steps to maintain secrecy to make it as acceptable and normal as possible.

OIL in its 4th of June, 2020 press release mentioned that it had approached CSIR – National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur and Wild Life Institute of India, Dehradun for conducting detailed impact assessment studies. But again on 9th of June, 2020 they have released a press report which mentioned: “A team from Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat reached Duliajan for an impact assessment on vegetation”. It remains a puzzle as to why the institute-in-charge was changed and the impact assessment was limited to only vegetation, and not for the fauna and humans as well.

OIL’s press releases mark this incident as unfortunate but hardly a catastrophic situation. When in reality, Table 7.2. of their EIA report defines this as a catastrophe.

There is a systemic underestimation continued in parallel to the images/videos in all media of the raging fire gulping down houses and patches of the national park.

Post-Blowout: Condensate slicked Maguri-Motapung

Post- Blowout: Condensate slicked wetland

Then, there was the complete U-turn when OIL deleted the 9th of June press because they had mentioned “Ignite Well” option in that published a fresh one where the “Ignite Well” option as a possible way to tame the blowout was omitted. Here, it is already documented that OIL staff were already engaged in ‘clearing operation’ suspiciously near the blowout site prior to the ignition, when OIL maintained elsewhere that any task undertaken around the blowout site is risky given lack of open space. This leaves many unanswered queries, one pointing to if OIL had allegedly already opted for the “Ignite well” option while putting up the “front stage” of “Capping Stack Guide Rail” mechanism.

“While chalking out plans with ALERT team in the morning five options were presented by ALERT team which included “Capping Stack Guide Rail” Mechanism and “Ignite Well” options. ONGC and OIL teams had made considerable progress with the “Capping Stack Guide Rail” mechanism and it was decided to proceed with same.” (09/06/2020– original press release)

“While chalking out the plans with ALERT team in the morning, they presented alternate options which also included “Capping Stack Guide Rail” Mechanism. ONGC and OIL teams had made considerable progress with the “Capping Stack Guide Rail” mechanism and it was decided to proceed with same” (09/06/202 –revised press release)

As more press releases emerge, it became evident that OIL was underestimating the damage.

“Around Six Hundred & Fifty (650) families (2500 persons) have been evacuated from the nearby affected areas and are camped in three relief camps set up at (i) Baghjan Dighulturrang M.E School. (ii) St. Joseph School – Baghjan Tea Estate and (iii) Gateline LP School, Dighultarrang. All necessary supports for stay, food (including baby food), water, toilets, electricity and medical have been provided at the relief camps with support from District Administration and local organizations. A team of officials from OIL is at site to look after the relief camps. Ambulance with Para-Medical staffs are kept as standby. Alternate relief camp at Bandarkhati High School, Bandarkhata Village has been kept ready as standby relief camp to accommodate more people, if required.” (01/05/2020)

While speaking to Jolly Saikia of NEADS (North-East Affected area Development Society) who had visited the four relief camps for assessment, the following came to light. The camp lacked gendered segregation causing severe distress and lack of privacy. There was no provision for physical distancing, masks or hand sanitiser keeping in mind the COVID-19 situation, and while there was no food shortage cooking and consumption was taking place in an unhygienic manner near the toilets. To top are the visuals in the local media we saw on the day of the blowout of people running out of their houses with bare essentials. These people already knew that if a fire breaks it will touch their radius. So the question arises: What was the radius used to select families for evacuation? There is no mention of exact radius in any of the press releases. This was when OIL was saying the safety of the ecosystem was their top priority.

Food being prepared in one of the relief camps near the toilet. Source: Jolly Saikia, NEADS

Even to this date OIL’s effort to contain or even reduce the effects of the blowout seems insincere. Expert onlookers feel the same. Several on ground reports showed that locals do not feel OIL had done enough. Everyone expressed puzzlement on why thirteen days elapsed with the leakage and nothing was done to prevent the fire. The meta-message one gets from this public outcry was that OIL had failed to manage the risks. Even if they are frantically trying to put the opposite picture, with the situation just slipping out of their hands. They released the following few hours after the fire:

“..it is now a safe environment for working and are confident that the situation can be controlled..” (09/06/2020).

It was much later in the 4th of June press release presence of natural-gas condensate gets mentioned in the Press release for the first time. The effects of this release were yet to be ascertained, although the possibility is that it is harmful to the ecosystem due to its chemical composition. There are certain reports of nausea amongst the locals but remains absent in the press releases of the company.

End thoughts

In 2005 when the Dikom fire happened there were very few online portals. Television news ran a passive story. But now in the time of online portals and social media where people can engage in interpretations and commentaries, it might not be easy for OIL to keep the secrets for long. This is not to say that secrets are overwhelmingly negative. Instead, as sociologist George Simmel would argue secrets has a generative potential for constituting self, society and culture. But importantly, when institutional secrets overlook space and time, it runs the risk of jeopardising knowledge with loss and hauteur. But those working in the energy sector opine the opposite. They still believe that, in this era of post-extractivism, it will take years of litigation, like that of Chernobyl, BP Oil Spill or Exxon Valdez to get an answer to the simple yet most pressing question of “How did the leakage happen?”

Baghjan burning

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Sampurna Das Written by:

Sampurna Das is a Doctoral Candidate with the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, India. She has been working on the issues of water and land governance, and agrarian relations in the wider context of environment and development discourses.

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