Connecting Regions of Asia.

Bruised Baghjan


In the year 2010 when the multi national oil company BP, earlier known as British Petroleum with headquarters in London and Houston waded into the largest marine oil spill in history through its Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana in United States, it raged into a full blown diplomatic fire engulfing the United Kingdom and the United States of America. With the estimated release of 134 million to 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico leading to the sniffing out of tens of thousands of marine life including the death of 11 workers and injuring 17 of them, damaging shorelines of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, this disastrous oil spill provoked angry public protests and strong government reactions in the United States. In President Barrack Obama’s address to the nation he thundered – “But make no mistake: We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.”

Although Obama directly did not refer to BP as “British Petroleum”, it had a recall value as “British Petroleum” since earlier known as and it complicated matters when it continued to be referred to as “British Petroleum” by Obama’s officials and aides in the White House, even though by 2010 it ceased to be so in its books and records! This led to an outburst of emotional umbrage from British politicians so much so that a writer in a New York Times article wrote – “When is the word “British” an international insult?” ” When officials in the Obama White House combine it with another word: “petroleum”! The Britons dignity got hurt in being associated with a company that had tarnished its reputation with such a grave environmental disaster. Matters got worse when BP’s CEO Tony Hayward made light of the disaster by infamously terming the oil spill as ‘relatively tiny’ compared with the ‘very big ocean’! Online petitions to ‘Boycott’ BP products and BP gas stations rented the air so much so that BP had to redesign their damage control strategies and run TV advertisements with an apology from Hayward. 

President Obama promised in his address – “Tonight I’d like to lay out for you what our battle Is going forward: what we’re doing to help our neighbours in the Gulf, and what we’re doing to make sure that a catastrophe like this never happens again”.  In 2012, the US Government received a sum of $4.5 billion from BP who agreed to accept criminal liability and paid $ 20 billion in a trust fund to pay individuals and commercial concerns directly affected by the spill. However BP continued to be embroiled in legal battles with indirect affected parties and in a 2014 court ruling BP was subjected to ‘enhanced civil penalties’ due to its ‘gross negligence’ and ‘wilful misconduct’. An official estimate of the total costs incurred by BP till 2016 was totalling to a whooping  $61.6 billion! A case study of the BP Oil Spill summarises in conclusion that’ this is a classic example of why organizational decision making in crisis situation should be based on ethical principles such as accountability and responsibility. Public criticism not only focussed on the oil spill, but on the lack of remorse and sincerity from the top management in crisis response, particularly the lack of sympathy to the victims of the disaster. The failure by BP’s leadership to respond to the disaster with sufficient speed and attention demonstrates that crisis preparedness and ethical guidelines should become part of organisational culture.” (The Arthur W. Page Centre) 

The summary of the BP case study sounds eerily similar to many of our Indian man-made disasters including the recent Oil India Ltd’s Baghjan oil well leakage and subsequent blow out. One may argue that the scale and extent of Baghjan may not be the same as the Deep Horizon Oil Spill but wasn’t the loss of two lives of firefighters, the loss of flora and fauna endangering the nearby bio-diversity Dibru-Saikhowa forest reserve and Maguri wetland,the dislocation of nearly 7,000 people from their home and hearth to relief camps like refuges an avoidable human tragedy? It reeks of the same lack of speed in crisis management by Oil India Ltd, India’s reputed second largest state-owned exploration and production company with a high profile stakeholder like the Ministry of petroleum, in handling the crisis in the first 13 days after the gas leak was detected. On 27th May it is reported in media that a team of workers were trying to replace a damaged spool in well number five of the Baghjan oil field which makes it a routine maintenance exercise. On the other hand there are also reports of a ‘workover operation’ which makes it a more complex and invasive operation. Whatever the operations, gas leak occurred leading to a blow out and finally a uncontrollable blaze. Now question arises from the day of gas leak to blow out and blaze, in exactly 13 days what were the standard operating procedures followed? John Energy Ltd, a Gujarat based firm which was outsourced for operating the Baghjan oil well has been issued a showcase notice by Oil India for the mishap and a Committee has been formed by the Ministry to submit a report. 

It is interesting to note that a Parliamentary Standing Committee on “the Safety, Security and Environmental Aspects in Petroleum Sector”,  had already presented an exhaustive Report and Recommendation to the Ministry on safety measures to be implemented in petroleum installations all over the country and it was placed before the Rajya Sabha in July 2018. As per the Ministry’s data in the period between 2014-17, a total number of 309 accidents took place in which there were 81 fatalities and 193 people were injured. Accidents happen but does it occur due to technological insufficiency, callousness, greed or sheer incompetence on the part of the agencies who are operating it? 

The Committee found that some major causes of accidents in the oil and gas industry as per the analysis submitted to the Safety Council by Oil Industry Safety Directorate (OISD) was, “not following the Standard Operating Procedures, violation of work permit system and knowledge gap”. The committee expressed ‘deep anguish’ that 

a major accident that occurred in the GAIL pipeline at Nagaram in East Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh in the year 2014 which caused extensive damage to life and property claiming 22 lives could have been avoided as “the cause of the accident was pipeline / equipment failure due to violations of SOPs. “

The initiation of the new policy of privatisation of oil wells of PSU’s with the focus “to raise output from existing fields and bringing newer areas under production quickly’ led to the infiltration of private firms into the oil wells whose mandate could possibly border on maximum output in minimum time. It also raises apprehensions on the appropriate training of the contractual workers although training of workers are part of the contract agreement with private firms. Such apprehensions were also raised by the members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee in their report where they wrote – ” During the period 2014-17, 78 accidents were caused due to such workers of these contractors in which 43 contract workers lost their lives,” …”But such large number of incidents caused due to untrained contractual workers and loss of life creates an apprehension that whether OISD guidelines are being followed by the companies in letter and spirit or not.” The Committee, therefore, strongly recommended that special attention be paid for imparting regular training and refresher training of all the workers including contract workers and security personnel. The OISD was also instructed to strictly check the aspect of training during their audits and fix the responsibility. This raises the question how well trained were those employed by the firm who got the Baghjan contract for operating and maintenance of the well? Did OISD check the standard of training? 

Fire is the most common hazardous accident at petroleum installations and the Standing Committee had highlighted the need for setting up of Emergency Response Centres (ERCs) to handle major oil fires at petroleum installations in the country. It had urged “immediate action to set up 22 ERCs starting with 11 ERCs at strategic locations especially where there is cluster of oil companies/terminals to meet any disaster.” This recommendation was initially accepted by the Ministry only as “a second line of defence’ and it was argued that “state of the art equipment at the installations of all the Oil Marketing Companies (OMC) and firefighting capabilities were adequate to meet any major fire emergency arising out on account of routine operations”. The Committee expressed its dissatisfaction in strong words and ‘deplored the casual approach of the Ministry resulting in inordinate delay in the setting up of ERCs.”  Expressing derision it stated – ” It appears that the oil industry is waiting for another major disaster to happen to get on its feet.”. The Committee disagreed that the firefighting capabilities of the industry was adequate to meet any major fire emergency and since setting up of ERC’s may take a few years it “strongly recommended that for the interim period the OMCs should procure required advanced firefighting equipments viz. robotic monitors, high capacity pumps with portable foam monitors, large hoses etc. for all the 22 locations for the proposed ERCs. The Committee also recommended that till the ERCs are set up, the OMCs should appoint an experienced agency on temporary basis who can provide 24×7 emergency firefighting services with advanced equipments without any further delay.”  Finally the Ministry agreed to set up 5 pilot ERCs under IOCL in Jaipur, HPCL in Vizag, BPCLin Manmad, ONGC-in Hazira and under GAIL in Dibyapur. Global tenders for the same were set to be floated in 2018. 

Now did Oil India Ltd Duliajan fall under the 22 ERC site as recommended by the Committee? Did it have the required emergency fire fighting services with advanced equipments as recommended by the Committee? There are many questions the new Committee appointed by the Ministry will have to raise on the basis of the Report and Recommendations of Parliamentary Standing Committee.

Early on from end of May itself news about the threat to human habitation and the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park wildlife evoked consternation among the people of Assam but no urgency was visible on the part of the stakeholder Ministry nor from the State Industry Ministry. No speed at crisis management was observed during that time. Accountability on ethical guidelines were found to be wanting. To make matters worse when the blow out developed into a blaze, the people of Assam faced a Tony Haywards moment when a State Minister made cavalier comments like -“this is nothing compared to Russia and Iran’, ‘ in Russia massive fires continue to burn for 80 days!’ Such comments bring to the fore the ‘lack of remorse and lack of empathy factor for those affected’ on the part of those directly or indirectly accountable for the mishap and does not help the cause of the Assamese people  who have suffered for no fault of theirs. 

(Bobbeeta Sharma is the General Secretary & Senior Spokesperson, Assam PCC)

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