Murphy`s first law, greased

  • 14/02/1995

MURPHY'S oft-proven first law -- "If something can go wrong, it will" -- is something which appears to have been given the go-by, on their fast-forward to striking paydirt, by the decisionmakers at the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC), if the experience at the recent blowout at Allwaram village in the Godavari delta is anything to measure technological idiocies by.

Although rare, blowouts of such magnitude are clearly not unknown. But content with the oil and gas production targets stated in the glossy annual reports, the mandarins of the ONGC planned little for eventualities. This gross lack of foresight has jeopardised the halo of providing the country oil sufficiency that ONGC had primped on its head. As tonnes of gas rush out of the well, the nation has been forced to bear an enormous cost, not just in terms of revenue but in confidence. The towering inferno, being termed more intense than the Kuwaiti fires, has reduced technological complacence to cinders.

The ONGC might resort to taking refuge behind the easily-available "human error" conclusion. But not only were systems to deal with an accident of this nature not in place, experts argue that even the preliminary studies undertaken before embarking upon the exploratory exercise were grossly inadequate.

The pressure at which natural gas came out of the drilled well, in its last days of completion, lent credence to charges of inadequate geophysical and seismic studies prior to drilling. ONGC experts, still far from measuring the pressure at which gas is gushing to the surface, are pitted against a section of geophysicists who maintain that pressures even 3 km below earth's surface can be measured using ordinary seismic data and techniques. This very essential information is likely to determine the fate of the capping operations, which include the drilling of a relief well, almost as expensive as the stricken one.

Basic disaster mitigation strategy and equipment were imported as, with its faith in itself shaken, the ONGC was kneecapped by pressure to hire foreign experts and capping devices. The lack of preparedness was also evident from the unavailability of relevant spares which became necessary as the crisis management groups unfolded their operations. Crucial equipment, including the well head, flanges and high-grade steel pipes, was hurriedly requisitioned from abroad.

Under strict public scrutiny, delays in efforts to bring the situation under control became more and more disconcerting. As it turned out, even the roads leading up to the well were not broad enough to accommodate the earthmovers essential to deal with the blowout.

The water canal present near the well was heavensent, but no thanks to the ONGC. Despite touting a "water umbrella" as the dramatis persona in the firefighting operations, a ready source of water was never ensured. Even the decision to use the canal water and dig 2 water storage ponds was taken some days after the accident.

As the ONGC admitted, oil exploration projects are exempt from environment impact assessments which are mandatory for other development projects. Despite all-too-possible adverse environmental impacts, no clearance is required from the ministry of environment and forests, which is yet to press for the vetting of such projects, clearly ignoring the air, water and noise pollution and accidents that rigs can cause. All the ONGC has to do is prepare a risk analysis to be submitted to the department of mines before commencing work on a gas or oil well -- usually limited to a cursory disaster management system, which essentially entails informing officials, ensuring evacuation and a continuous alert for saboteurs.

The ONGC, on its own, has enough cause to gripe as its activities are governed almost solely by commerce. Spiraling petroleum demands have not been matched by an overall indigenous input network. Steel pipes come from Germany as the Indian steel industry is yet to match global standards being demanded by the petroleum sector. The "sole user" status for the ONGC has never provided a bulk orders-driven industry a commercially viable incentive to set up production units for items like well heads.

Although the ONGC's sad contention is that there would be no takers for the innovations its 7-odd research and development outfits might churn out, it is common knowledge that these institutions have done little for any reason to cheer.

The ONGC's crisis management group, fortunately, has proved its mettle -- a task for which one "has to leave his brains behind", as Neil Adams, the Houston-based capping expert hired to bung the cap on the blowout, prefers to put it. But as the operations get underway and a relief well is poked in and directed towards the burning well, the ONGC's policymakers will have to brainstorm hard before the grease-blackened government gives it the nod for another well.