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Assam: Site workers allege OIL goof-up in Baghjan blast

After the initial blowout on 27th May, the BGR 5 oil well of Baghjan area of Tinsukia, Assam has been engulfed in a massive fire since Tuesday. A dense cloud of smoke was seen erupting out of the well. This comes amid the backdrop of a team of experts arriving from Singapore to Assam, who reached the site on Monday and were supposed to work on it.

The gravity of the problem is beyond the fire blast as many families of nearby villages have been affected badly. Locals are fleeing the areas and as per the latest press release issued by OIL, have been kept in 12 relief centres. So far, 2 deaths have been reported from the blast.

Beyond the human grief

Apart from the human toll, animals including endangered dolphins have died previously around the vicinity. The situation is even worrying as the well is near the Dibru Saikhowa National Park Assam, which is designated as a biosphere reserve. It consists of pristine flora and fauna which stands to be the most affected in such a scenario.

Also read: Assam: Austerity measures fail as massive fire breaks out in Baghjan OIL well

This has created a national uproar regarding the seriousness of the situation. Few questions arise: outsourcing 3rd party companies to manage the well without checks and balance, failure of containment measures and the total management failure. Sources close to the matter have alleged that outsourced service providers have hired diploma holders to do an engineer’s job and OIL has been using such providers to cut costs.

The ground whispers

In all of this mess, a contractual employee of the service provider present at the site has accused OIL of violating standard operating procedure (SOP). On anonymity, he said, “the previous day of the blowout there was cementing going on for plugging the hole at a depth of 3987 metres for closing a zone”. As per the norms, 48 hours is usually maintained for the pipes to be pulled out, however, he said, “that only after 6-7 hours pipes were pulled out of the hole under the instructions of OIL cementing engineer”. The blowout could still have been averted but “officials told the workers to remove the Blow Out Preventor (BOP) very early. We don’t know why such actions were recommended but we are supposed to follow like servants”, said the employee. “If only we could have opened it after 48 hours, such a blowout in Baghjan would never have happened”.

The OIL version

To answer these claims being made against the PSU, Inside Northeast approached OIL. On being asked who was the site engineer present, OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika refused to comment and said further inquiry will clear the whole matter. He added, “our technical team will challenge the aforementioned arguments if stated”. As of now, OIL has suspended 2 employees relating to the matter. “We will do our internal enquiry, however, if the mentioned allegations are true, then why did (the service provider) employees follow such orders knowing the outcome”, asks Hazarika. He has indicated lapses on the service provider’s part. Another OIL employee has refuted the claims and said, “this can be easily ascertained by checking whether the rig was inoperational for the two days preceding the blowout”.

As per reports, it will take about 4 weeks to douse the flames in Baghjan. On being asked about the final outcome, the answer was not motivating. “This is an unrestricted blowout with both gas and condensate gas. We tried to control it initially by blowing high pressured water but it is difficult to reduce condensate matter as it is coming out 24/7. This is the reason we had to initiate evacuation”, was the response.

The macro issues

There are lapses and errors of judgement by stakeholders on both sides which can only be ascertained after due inquiry. People associated with the oil industry have also raised the question of lack of indigenous R&D for an industry that dates back to imperial times and still needs the help of experts from abroad. There are also allegations that Baghjan is a condensate well as opposed to a gas well and hence the volatility is higher, a fact which the OIL neglected.

An underrated aspect

An important aspect of the episode is the casualisation of the labour force in the name of Public-Private Partnership (PPP). It is important to notice OIL’s response to the Baghjan blast allegation: “Then why did the service providers employees follow such orders?” It reveals the lack of coordination which is the basis of PPP. Isn’t this the neo-liberal economic model of India, which relies on disinvestment with the claims that PPP and increased private competition will increase efficiency?

The current issue is now only about stopping the blowout and it should not be reduced to mere technicalities. In the midst of all the blame game, this episode raises some questions regarding the equation that needs clarity. Inside Northeast contacted a petroleum academician who on anonymity tried to explain to us the situation of what the employee alleged and what could have been done instead

The technical aspect

“Conducting such workover operations to produce from a separate zone demands an operation called squeeze cementing wherein clean cement is used to plug the previous producing zone. This demands a particular time of inoperation to allow for the setting and hardening of the cement. This is called the Wait on Cement (WOC). Theoretically, a time of 48 hours is to be given for this. Even after this integrity test of the cement followed by circulation to ensure uniform pressure and density inside the well are mandatory”, he said.

If all of this was conducted according to the book without any discrepancies, the reason for the blowout is mysterious, to say the least. All things considered, a blowout is not an immediate event and is preceded by kicks and other indications.

He further stated that “whether the site engineer was able to interpret these indications is also questionable. If this had happened in an open hole it was still understandable. But in an already producing well which was previously cased and cemented, it’s very hard to digest. The temptation to save time during a well completion operation is false economy, an apparent financial saving that in fact leads to greater expenditure”.

Thus, human negligence is a given, even without the allegations. The real question should be: on whose part?

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