Smoke billows from a fire at Baghjan oilfield a week after the blowout, in Tinsukia district, June 9, 2020. Photo: PTI.
Even as a gas well operated by Oil India Limited (OIL) in Baghjan, Assam, continues to blaze out of control, the same company wants to drill for oil just a kilometre away from the site – at the edge of a national park.
The company’s 200-page environmental impact assessment (EIA) report reveals the company took data from abroad to predict the risk involved, and is oddly silent on blowouts in India. To protect its workers during drilling, it recommends “PPE suits and earplugs” while assuming wild animals in the area will only be temporarily disturbed. The project is also yet to have its assessment of the biodiversity impact, as the Supreme Court mandated in 2017.
The law requires permissions to be granted for activities based on the EIA report. And OIL’s report states that “the seven subsurface locations are located” at the new site “within the national park. The seven wells will be drilled from three surface well pads that lie outside of the park”.
However, the report appears to downplay the risk the project poses to the region’s biodiversity.
The proposed drilling site is proximate to the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and the Bherjan, Padumoni and Borajan wildlife sanctuaries. The national park covers an area of 340 sq. km, and is the core of the larger Dibru-Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve in Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts. There are at least 40 mammalian, 500 avian, 104 fish and over 105 butterfly species here.
In order to drill, OIL claims it will use existing platforms located outside the park. According to the EIA report, prepared by Delhi-based Environment Resource Management, the following activities will be undertaken as a result:
– Clearance of vegetation
– Construction of a foundation system with reinforced cement concrete
– Drilling and wash wastewater generated to be stored at onsite HDPE-lined pit
The report estimates some 60 truckloads of materiel will be transported out of the site in this time. Bear in mind that this is at the edge of a national park. The report then continues:
The drilling rig will be operated by approximately 50 persons on the rig at any particular time. The manpower will operate in two shifts with continuous operations on the rig. This will include technical experts (including expats), who will be responsible for various drilling-related activities, and some local workers who will be hired from nearby villages for the entire duration of the project.
How much water will be generated?
During the drilling phase, approximately 6.2 cubic metres per day of wastewater will be generated from the drilling activity and 8 cubic metres per day of domestic wastewater will be generated from each drill site. Approximately 350-40 of drill cuttings and 900-1200 cu. m of spent mud will be generated per site.
In addition, the report estimates a requirement of “about 2,500 kg of cement, 5,000 kg of sand, 500 m3 of earth/fill material, 200 kg steel and 1,000 m3 of aggregate will be required”.
Then there’s the noise pollution.
Operation of heavy machinery/equipment and vehicular movement during site preparatory and road strengthening/construction activities may result in the generation of increased noise levels. Operational phase noise impacts are anticipated from the running of drilling rig and ancillary equipment viz. shale shakers, mud pumps and diesel generators.
To deal with this noise, which the report admits will be high, it suggests “appropriate PPEs (e.g. ear plugs) … for workers while working near high noise generating equipment”.
But while workers seem to have received face-masks and earplugs, the report assumes the animals and birds of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park can get by on their own.
Again, bear in mind that this is on the edge of a national park – the world’s largest riverine island national park, in fact.
The drilling operation will obviously have far-reaching ecological consequences for the park – notwithstanding a mishap of any sort. On this count, the report states that “spill kits [will] be used for removal of any oil or chemical spillage on site” along with a string of other measures.
More importantly, according to the EIA report, the risk of a blowout is “negligible”. Given there is another well nearby that continues to spew out of control, the part of the report focusing on hazard identification is particularly relevant. Here, the report refers to the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board as a database for onshore drilling incidents, which it says includes “drilling occurrence data for Alberta from 1975 till 1990 with a total of 87,994 wells drilled”. However, the report doesn’t mention a blowout incident in nearby Dikom, about 20 km west of the national park, in 2005.
So it concludes: “The blow out frequency for the proposed project is calculated at 3.08 × 10-3 per well drilled per year, i.e. the likelihood of its occurrence is ‘occasional/rare’.”
Finally, the report seems to accept that the frequency of human-wildlife conflicts will go up. To mitigate conflict, it suggests creating a “10 feet barricade around drilling plinths and a safety zone of 7.5 metres around the barricade æ fenced with chain link fencing and planted with indigenous plant species to prevent any injuries/mortality of wildlife”. Ironically, it also suggests undertaking a ‘Wildlife Awareness Program’ with workers and the local people to create awareness of the “importance of wildlife”.
Multiple studies near similar project sites have recognised that natural gas fields can affect nesting birds and increase their stress levels. A 2018 study conducted in the natural gas fields of northern New Mexico concluded that cavity-nesting birds exposed to noise developed glucocorticoid-signalling dysfunction and became less fit. The paper states that the exact mechanisms by which noise disrupts animals and their environments are still debated, but also that there is a link between noise exposure and vigilance and foraging.
All together, OIL’s EIA report seems to think the region’s biodiversity won’t be affected by its new project. In 2017, the Supreme Court had ordered a biodiversity impact assessment, by the Assam State Biodiversity Board, but such an assessment hasn’t been conducted thus far. As a result, on July 23 this year, the National Green Tribunal issued a notice asking how the Union environment ministry had cleared the project.
In the meantime, OIL continues its quest for more drilling sites and the well at Baghjan is still ablaze.
Bahar Dutt is an award winning environment journalist and author.