Baghjan Oil Spill: Rethinking oil exploration in India’s Northeast

Oil exploration and drilling by oil companies continue to unleash social and environmental impacts, during their exploration survey works and direct drilling works in addition to human rights impacts.

Oil Exploration across India’s Northeast, pursued from British Colonial times, remains a contested subject for a long time. In Assam, where the oil exploration started more than a century back at Digboi, the contested topic is not mere social and environmental implications, but also the contribution of oil industry in shaping Assam’s economy and its polity for that matter. While Assam contributes about 10 per cent of  the country’s total crude oil and natural gas production, the state languishes as one of the poorest states in India . With all the Seven Northeastern states confirmed to possess rich deposits of oil and gas deposits, oil companies, viz, Canada based Canaro Oils, Netherland based Jubilant Oil and Gas Private Ltd, France based Geopetrol, India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited, Oil India Limited etc aggressively descends to extract the oil and gas and profits from North East region.

Oil exploration and drilling by oil companies continue to unleash social and environmental impacts, during their exploration survey works and direct drilling works in addition to human rights impacts. On May 27, 2020, a major blowout, or an uncontrolled release of natural gas and crude oil occurred at the Baghjan Oilfield of Oil India Limited (OIL) in Tinsukia district, Assam after reported failure of the pressure control systems. The oil spill continues since the exploration on 27th May, as the OIL company failed to control the oil spill as of June 10. And indeed, a massive fire broke out at Baghjan oil spill site on June 9, causing panic among communities, besides worsening air, water, and soil pollution around the drilling site.

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal even suggested the use of aircraft of the Indian Air Force to douse the fire at the oil spill site.

The OIL company contracted experts from Singapore based Alert Disaster Control to control the oil spill.  Oil indicated on 9th June that it will take another four weeks to control the fire. Affected communities are forced to wait and suffer for months from contaminations of their land and livelihood sources till foreign experts control the oil spill long after. Seeking help by OIL from foreign countries indicates the lack of technical capacity of the OIL company to handle major oil spills and to clean up contaminations, which is a matter of serious concern for indigenous peoples across North East, where OIL is now involved extensively in exploratory drilling works, such as in Assam and Manipur.

The Baghjan's five well is a gas-producing well in Tinsukia district, operating since 2006, at distance of 900 metres from the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. The well produces around 80,000 standard cubic metres per day (SCMD) of gas from a depth of 3,870 metres. Oil officials indicated that the current oil discharge due to spill is estimated at 90,000 SCMD as of 8 June . The Baghjan incident is not the first oil spill and environmental contamination in Assam. Earlier, in February 2020, a blast at the oil pipeline of OIL had set Assam’s Burhi Dihing River on fire in Dibrugarh district's Naharkatia town . In the recent past, two comparable blowouts happened in Assam, one at an OIL-owned oil well in Dibrugarh in 2005 and an ONGC-owned oil well in Rudrasagar in the 1970s. Elsewhere, the Pasarlapudi blowout in January 1995 in Andhra Pradesh is the biggest in the history of the India’s oil and natural gas exploration with oil spill and fire continuing for more than two months.

Impacts: The oil spill inflicted adverse effect on biodiversity of the two eco-sensitive zone of Maguri-Motapung wetland, part of the eco-sensitive zone of the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park (DSNP), home to at least 36 species of mammals including feral horses and at least 382 species of birds. The spill site at Baghjan 5 well is around 300 metres from the boundary of the buffer forest of the DSNP. Locals found a carcass of a Gangetic dolphin, declared as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in the Maguri wetland. Several endangered birds and fish varieties were killed. The oil blowout also affected local tea gardens in surrounding oil spill area.

As many as 1,610 families with around 3,000 people are affected and evacuated due to the spill. As per Assam Pollution Control Board, the gas leak from oil spill, which is a mix of propane, methane, propylene and other gases flowed up to a radius up to 5 km and condensate is mostly falling on tea gardens, banana trees and betel nut trees besides falling into DSNP. These are areas villagers depend for fishing and livelihood. Villagers in the vicinity of the drilling site of prime oil well (BGR No 5) reported enormous flaring of gas burned continuously prior to the Baghjan incident and villagers for long developed headache, irritation of eyes, skins, and nasal passages etc due to the gas flaring.

In an environmental clearance issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change, Government of India (MoEFCC), the OIL, was appraised of the conditions to be enforced under the provisions of Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) act, 1974; the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act,1981; the Environment(Protection) Act,1986; the Hazardous Waste Management Rules, 2016, the Public Liability Insurance Act,1991 etc.

However, the OIL has failed to comply with conditions outlined in the Environment Clearance Report. Further, the OIL was to take adequate measures to prevent spillage of hazardous wastes into the water bodies and further to mitigate oil spilling and fire hazards. Further, para xviii of the Environment Clearance Report directs the company to install blow-out prevention system to avoid accidents during drilling. The May 27 blowout incident testify the failure of the precautionary measures of OIL. Earlier in May, OIL announced that MoEFCC granted environment clearance for hydrocarbon exploration in seven locations close to DSNP.

Oil Drilling in India’s Northeast: Despite such incidents at Baghjan and wide environmental catastrophe, Oil companies has been trying to drill oil and gas from all over North East, in addition to Assam to meet India’s energy demands to sustain its economic progress. The Government of India (GOI) introduced policies for energy security, including allowing 100% foreign direct investment in natural gas, petroleum products and refineries. Oil laws like the Oilfields (Regulation and Development) Act, 1948 conferred exclusive right to GOI on oil exploration. New policies are framed to promote oil exploration in India’s North East. The formulation of the North East Hydrocarbon Vision 2030 on 9th February 2016 by the GOI planned to invest Rs 1,30,000 crore in 15 years to explore and drill oil and gas and to create necessary infrastructures in North East. The vision document stated that the two sedimentary basins, Upper Assam Shelf and Assam-Arakan Basin – cover an area of 116,000 sq. km and contain hydrocarbon resources around 5,040 Million Metric Tonne. The vision seeks to increase exploration from the unexplored areas NE India amidst India’s Act East Policy.

OIL’s oil exploration and resistance in Manipur: In Manipur, the OIL company, responsible for the Baghjan oil spills, endeavoured to explore and drill oil from Manipur from 2017, after the Jubilant Oil and Gas Private Limited withdraw oil drilling plans from 2012 due to wide community objections. OIL contracted Rs 143-crore to Asian Oilfield Services Limited in January 2017 for 2D seismic data and commenced oil surveys in Jiribam, Tamenglong and Imphal West Districts in Manipur. The demarcated area for oil surveys by OIL cover almost all of Manipur, including ecologically sensitive areas of Manipur like the Loktak Wetlands, Barak and Manipur River system, the Yaingangpokpi Lokchao Wildlife Sanctuary, Keilam Wildlife Sanctuary etc.

The OIL commenced surveys in Khaidem, Moidangpok, Sangaithel villages in Imphal West district since March 2017 without consent of villagers and blasted explosive devices during their survey without clear information on the impacts in Khaidem Village. Moreover, OIL officials verbally misinformed villagers nothing ever will happen to them. The company was compelled to stop their oil exploration survey works due to protest. OIL expressed its plans in March 2020 to continue with oil exploration in Manipur and to float a tender for 2D survey works 850-line Kilometre (lkm) to establish the oil and gas potential of the state. OIl decided to commence work with reassurance of security by Government of Manipur.

The oil companies failed to conduct any impact assessment including for 2D and 3D seismic surveys on the land, people and environment of the proposed villages and sites of oil surveys and drilling operations. Manipur indeed falls in two of the World’s Biodiversity Hotspot, the Eastern Himalayas Biodiversity Hotspot, and Indo-Burma Hotspot. Oil companies downplayed the environmental impacts of oil exploration during their survey works and efforts to drill oil. The draft EIA report prepared by Canada based SENES Consultancy for Jubilant Energy undermines the fact that the entire Tamenglong, Churachandpur, and Jiribam is an eco-sensitive zone with rich flora, flora diversity. The proposed oil exploration site fall under the Barak River Basin and are interspersed with several rivers.

Oil Exploration and Human Rights: The Oil India Limited unleashed human rights violations by contaminating the land and water bodies and by denying the livelihood of communities depending on Rivers and wetlands. Continued oil exploration across Assam and India’s North East will intensify climate change due to emission of Greenhouse gases. India’s laws, viz, Oil Fields (Regulation and Development) Act, 1948 , the Oil Industry (Development) Act, 1974; Petroleum and Minerals Pipelines (Acquisition of Right of User in Land), Act, 1962; and Petroleum & Natural Gas Rules, 1959 grants exclusive propriety rights of all oil and gas resources and its handling to the Government of India. Section 5 and 6 of the Oilfields (Regulation and Development) Act,1948 empowers the Central Government to frame rules for mining lease for oil exploration. These laws failed to recognize the advances on indigenous peoples’ rights, sustainable development etc. The effort to explore and drill oil in Manipur involves a process of disrespect and non-application of human rights-based approach to development, one that recognise Indigenous peoples’ rights over their land and resources.

Further, the MoEFCC amended the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2006 on 16 January 2020. All offshore and onshore oil and gas exploration, development, and production projects, which were classified as ‘Category A’ projects are now categorised as ‘Category B2’ projects, thus exempting from EC requirements . The draft EIA Notification, 2020 with exemptions to oil exploration and drilling from Impact Assessments and public consultations will facilitate oil companies to violate indigenous peoples rights with unregulated oil exploration in Northeast.

Conclusions: The continued oil spill at Baghjan should lead to serious review and rethinking of oil exploration and fossil fuel-based industries pursued aggressively across India’s North East, especially the irreparable social and environmental implications over generations. The Government and Oil India Limited should rehabilitate and compensate the villagers Impacted by the Oil Spill to restore their livelihood and health and to urgently clean up the village areas, water bodies and air contaminated by the Oil Spill be taken up. OIL should be held accountability for social impacts and irreparable loss of biodiversity. An investigation should be pursued to prosecute responsible officials. Oil India Limited and other oil companies should stop oil further oil exploration and drilling in Eco-sensitive and fragile biodiversity zones in Assam and across India’s North East.  The assurance for safety and precautionary measures by Oil Companies before oil exploration is proven irrational with incidents like Baghjan Oil spill in Assam. While people suffer from such contamination and spills, oil companies continue to make profits. The languishing of Assam as one of the poorest States of India despite oil exploration from British times need careful studies to avoid similar reality in Manipur.

Accountability of oil companies involved in violations remains a concern in the region. The John Energy Private Limited, one of the companies contracted by OIL at the Baghjan oil site has been served show cause notice by OIL . However, this is not the first time and will not be the last. There are no reports of oil companies investigated and prosecuted for social impacts and environmental damage. The oil companies already embarked on long-term potential opportunities to maximize profits, to expand their oil assets and to exploit the natural resources across India’s North East with tacit support of local authorities.

Northeast for that matter, witnessed series of peoples’ conglomerations1, expressing deep concern with both the process and impact of oil exploration . Villagers from Churachandpur, Jiribam and Tamenglong Districts opposed the oil exploration move by Jubilant Energy in in 2012.  On 17th May 2017, villagers of Khaidem Village stopped the Oil India Limited from conducting oil surveys in their village.

The Government should refrain from pursuing oil exploration without recognizing community rights and taking their consent. It is high time to review and rescind the corporatization of peoples’ land and resources. The oil laws and the North East Hydrocarbon Vision 2030 should be repealed to ensure compliance with human rights advances to advance Indigenous peoples’ rights and to protect the rich biodiversity of Northeast.

Oil companies should acknowledge that Indigenous peoples land and resources are not for sale and not for profiting. The ongoing Baghjan oil spill in Assam should be a stark reminder of the fallacies of oil exploration in Manipur and across India’s Northeast.

First Published:June 11, 2020, 9:59 p.m.