Assam: Petroleum Engineers and their Precarious Existence
There have been many articles written on the blow out at Assam's Baghjan well No. 5. Almost all were extremely critical of the Oil India Limited (OIL) management alleging irresponsibility, incompetence of technical people, sluggish mobilization, and inadequate care to the affected people.
Without any prejudice to the affected people, it will be wrong to accept all the allegations against OIL to be true sans an official enquiry in as much as it will be wrong to shirk away from the responsibility of adequately compensating the victims of the catastrophe by OIL and the petroleum ministry.
The long struggle to cap the well for months, by the experts - supposedly the best in the business of well control and blow out services - amply proves that the engineering behind exploration, drilling and production of oil and gas is no less than any rocket science. An engineer working in the oil field has not only to come out with the best of academics but also go through some arduous training in-country and abroad for developing the skills to tame the fury of different wells and produce the invaluable hydrocarbon to benefit mankind.
All his expertise needs to be applied through a hole of only a few inches in diameter to bring out the hydrocarbon from the depths of the earth. It is this liquid gold that turns the wheel of the economy in the entire world. It is indeed very difficult for a layman to fully appreciate the mental and physical hardship of working personnel in well sites.
In my career of 30 years in both public and private sectors of the upstream oil industry, I can say with total conviction that any oil field operation in upper Assam is most challenging in terms of controlling both the fury of the well and the locals. A young engineer in his twenties leaving his quarters to kill a well is not sure whether the well or he will be killed. All the technical calculations in the heads of the techies evaporate in the face of an angry mob accosting them on the way or at the site with some frivolous demands. Giving a demand note to a private drilling contractor or holding the public sector to ransom by calling a bandh on the oil field activity is rampant. Amidst this vitiated atmosphere the technical persons who are already on the edge tackling an unpredictable behavior of a high-pressure oil/gas well is bound to make inadvertent errors. Unless a secure environment free of extraneous nuisances is provided the technical mind cannot deliver its best.
Other oil/gas producing states - Gujarat for instance - in its operational areas do not experience similar abrasive situations from local organizations. In no way the techies at a well site or on the way are harassed by locals on the pretext of their demands not being met by the oil company. Stray miscreant activities do occur sometimes, but they cannot be termed as organized disruptive activity in forms of blockades and bandhs where the police force remains mute spectators. Even where local authorities come forward to provide security to the personnel at well sites or on the road, a lurking fear looms large over their heads like the proverbial sword of Damocles; at any moment the local area mob may overcome the forces to enter the operational area and turn the sweet dream of working in an oil company into a bitter nightmare.
Assam is endowed with the rare wealth of liquid gold under the cover of green tea bushes. By harnessing both these resources Assam has found a place in the global economic map. It is true that these industries thriving for more than 100 years required advertisement through agitation and insurgency to be known even in our own country. But both the oil and the tea industry have flourished due to the untiring efforts of the personnel who have managed the resources through generations ushering in the required timely improvements. It is therefore imperative to create a congenial environment for the frontline workers who can keep the wheels of economy moving or lead to a catastrophic blowout in an oil field.
During the agitation for Illegal foreigners, one of the prime demands was the induction of local techies into the core sectors. This demand was more than met at least in OIL as there was a large infusion of graduates from Dibrugarh University and Gauhati University into OIL. The successive CMDs of this premier oil company hailed from Assam and OIL earned a tag of being an Assamese bastion. Indeed this was very much required as over a century the feeling of neglect by the Centre alienated the Assamese people from the mainstream.
The irony of the fact is that even today the engineer, the chemist and the geologist who visit the well sites go with a fear psychosis despite being a local. For that matter, even the local contractors are not spared from unreasonable demands. Today OIL has slipped to 3rd place as an oil and gas producing company. It lost the second place after ONGC to Cairn Energy (now Vedanta), a private oil company that mainly operates in states other than Assam. It is indeed a clarion call for the people of Assam in general and the government, in particular, to stem this slide and keep alive the proud legacy of drilling the world’s second well in 1889 at Digboi.
(The writer is a chemical engineer, trained in petroleum technology in Houston USA. Having served in the petroleum sector for 30 years, he is now an independent consultant. The views expressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at email@example.com)
- Petroleum Engineers
- oil field operation
- upper Assam
- Assam's Baghjan well No. 5
- Baghjan Assam
- OIL Assam
- Oil India Limited