Another View of the Oil Inferno in Assam

Blowing out of oil wells is nothing new in Assam. It is still happening in the crazy year 2020 at a time when the CoronaVirus-19 pandemic is causing massive economic disruption.

Oil India Limited was formed by the Burmah Oil Company Limited as its subsidiary in India 1887 to explore in the Assam Basin, India (Corley, T A B, 1983, The History of the Burmah Oil Company, 1886-1983). Staff at the Burmah Oil Company Limited had heard from a geologist with the colonial British Indian Geological Survey, Thomas Oldham, that oil was found on the feet of elephants that were being used as beasts of burden in the vicinity of the Digboi village (Arun Metrie, pers. comm., former Burmah Oil economist, 1988).

The oil on the elephants’ feet was traced to the Digboi area, where a surface fold (anticline in geological parlance) had formed a broad hill.

A successful technique for exploration for hydrocarbons at the time was drilling beneath seeps on anticlines (Thornton, S E, 2015, the history of Oil Exploration in the Union of Myanmar, Paper No. 10807), so Oil India drilled beneath the Digboi seeps and found a giant oil field. Several other oil fields were subsequently found by Oil India Limited in what became India’s first oil production.

The first-ever oil well blowout took place in the Rudrasagar Oil Field in well number 25 in the early morning of January 4th, 1967. The intensity of the fire and brilliance enabled one to read in the night even hundreds of yards away. RDS-25 blew for thirty-nine days, before being ‘dynamited out’ by Russian experts following the strategy laid out by S. C. Chatterjee, the Chief of Calcutta fire services.

The Dikom oil wells blow out is of quite recent origin (2005). This was controlled by flying in and following the procedures.

However, it not known in the case of the Baghjan Blowout the Director General of Mines Safety filed a report within the first 24 hours after the blowout and towards whom it pointed an accusing finger.

Petroleum drilling is fraught with the inherent risks of oil spillage and of course, in the worst-case scenario, blowouts! It is suspected that there were likely some safety compromises to lower costs. Whether this led to a compromise with the blow out preventer is anybody’s guess.

The biggest mistake which cannot be redeemed is the permissions accorded to the oil company to drill in the vicinity of an ecosystem so rare in the world. The spillage and oil slick problems have been documented in the mangrove and wetland forests in the Niger Delta. And the so-called experts never knew about it and none were wiser in the process.

dehing patkai forest. Photo by Nava Thakuria.
Dehing Patkai forest. Photo by Nava Thakuria.
Sushanta Roy is a journalist in Assam, India, who photographs and writes about the people, animals and flora of Assam, and the things that affect them.