IT WAS as if the sun that had slipped below the horizon less than an hour ago decided to stay up late and have a ball. With bang that could be heard 10 km away, an orange-red flame leapt up into the sky at the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) onshore rig number E 1400-18GF at Pasarlapudi near Kakinada in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. It was 6.50 pm, January 8, 1995. And the ONGC's firefighting abilities faced an acid test.
The source of the conflagration was an unfinished natural gas well dug down to 2,777 metres. The gas and mud ripped out at ferocious velocity; the flame, towering 200 metres above the drill platform, lit up an area of 2 km radius around the well. The temperature shot up to 500C, and climbing. The ONGC's staff fled in the nick of time before the flame swallowed the Rs 9.12-crore rig.
Once the conflagration had started, nobody could stand within 500 m of the rig. From 7 villages within the 2 km radius of the rig, 1,500 people were evacuated immediately by state transport buses. More people fled in panic from the nearby villages.
The raging heat charred about 20 ha of valuable coconut palms and paddy fields near the shore, said usually taciturn ONGC officials. Petrol pumps and gas-based industries in the vicinity were shut down as a precautionary measure. Personnel and machines from several ONGC installations at the gas-and-oil rich Krishna-Godavari basin were rushed to the conflagration. Blowout experts were flown in from Bombay. To no avail, really: no one could advance even up the approach road to the rig because of the searing heat.
As ONGC's top officials and a crack team of experts supervised by the crisis management chief, S D Bhasi, waited for a chance to move in, repeated fax messages were sent out to international firefighting companies for assistance to cap the well pipe.
Officials with the Oil Industry Safety Directorate (OISD) said that the expertise to handle fires of such magnitude and malevolence does not exist in the country. "There are just a handful of companies in business all over the world. But the problem here is that the ONGC has no fixed deal with any of them. In the absence of such an arrangement, it takes lot of time to identify the agency which is going to be pressed into service in case of an accident," said a petroleum expert with the OISD.
Although ONGC officials maintain that they have the requisite expertise to extinguish such a fire, the responsibility was entrusted to Neil Adams Firefighter Inc of Houston, USA, who had handled the big Kommaradu blowout in the Krishna-Godavari basin in 1993.
What has surprised many is the fact that the Pasarlapudi rig did not have adequate firefighting equipment. It had to be rushed in from the Narsapuram and Vadodara units of the ONGC.
On the basis of the United Nations Development Programme's oil spill contingency measures, the ONGC has its own contingency plans in case of blowouts, or serious accidental discharges. As per the rickety guidelines, the only timely action taken was the evacuation of the local population.
What caused the fire? ONGC officials explained that while drilling was on at the ill-fated rig, a steel pipe had got stuck and the technicians had been busy fishing for it since December 20, 1994. On January 8, the gas leak started soon after the pipe was pulled out from a depth of 2,069 m. "Fire might have been caused by sand particles pumped out at high velocity rubbing against the pipes," says ONGC chairperson and managing director S K Manglik.
A Chatterji, fire hazard expert with the Tata Risk Management Services, says, "There is a possibility that the accident occurred when the pressure of gas gushing out increased beyond the load the pipe could carry, and it burst. In these circumstances, hydrogen, which comes out with natural gas is the first to catch fire and acts as a trigger."
"The fire-fighting operation will take 10 to 40 days," optimistically said ONGC general manager (coordination) Rangarajan, who rushed in from Hyderabad.
According to Manglik, the main problem is not the fire but the capping of the well. Even while the capping operation gets on, a controlled fire will have to be lit intermittently. "Otherwise the inflammable gas can spread and create havoc," says Manglik. Apart from the heat, the capping operation is hindered by the remnants of the burnt, skeletal rig, which covers the orifice of the leak. "It has to be cleaned up first to reach the well," says an ONGC spokesperson.
The inevitable delay will mean more losses -- both commercial and environmental. The blowout has cost the ONGC over Rs 20 crore, although officials claim that precise damage can be assessed only after the fire is at snuff-out point. The heat is consuming a total of 10 lakh cubic metres of gas -- a loss of about Rs 17 lakh -- a day, says Rangarajan. Add to that the fortune lost due to the precautionary closure of gas-run industries in the vicinity. The shutdown costs the local Nagarjuna Fertilisers Company Ltd as much as Rs 1 crore a day, says its vice-president (marketing), P R Menon. Dozens of smaller industries are have given up their ghosts.
Although less serious than a slick, gas leak and fire also substantially harm the environment. So far, the major losses have been coconut and paddy plantations burnt to a crisp by the heat. The villagers have also complained about the heat affecting the prawn cultivation in local ponds.
As for atmospheric pollution, a clear picture is yet to emerge. This kind of pollution is normally limited to the local area. The US National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA)-sponsored air quality studies done after oil and gas well flare-ups indicate the presence of soot particles, organic compounds, trace metals and gaseous pollutants, namely carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide.
Both sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide could affect the health of the people in the area, especially asthma patients, children and pregnant women, according to US air-quality studies.
Meanwhile, ONGC officials assure that the possibility of largescale environmental problems due to the Pasarlapudi blow out are the stuff of undue paranoia. International studies corroborate their view.
NASA studies done after the Kuwait oilwell fires show that the smoke from flaring gas can reach upto 3,900 m; or, in rare cases, a maximum of 5,700 m, much below the lower limit of the stratosphere at 12,000 m. (Volcanic eruptions like the one at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines pump up smoke above the 12,000 m line, affecting the ozone layer.). Prolonged and widespread fires at oil and gasfields, as happened in Kuwait, can induce a few instances of isolated acid rain, though not necessarily in the area of the fire.
Instances of blowoffs and leaks have occurred in India earlier, too. The Krishna-Godavari basin itself has witnessed similar instances 3 times in 16 years, the last being the one at Kommarada well in 1993. The same region made news last May when an oil tanker carrying 1,600 tonnes of crude from the Reva oilfield to Vishakhapatnam ran aground in Gauthami river near Narsapur, spilling oil. There have been serious leaks and flareups elsewhere, too. In Bombay High, a rig was destroyed in a flare-up in 1982. Four years later, there was a similar instance in Gandhar in Gujarat.
The Pasarlapudi blowout became an international talking point as it occurred on the eve of Petrotech-95, an international conference on petroleum technology held in New Delhi. Inaugurating the conference on January 9, Union minister of state for petroleum and chemicals Satish Sharma announced the plans of ONGC and Oil India Ltd (OIL) to invest US $2 billion in joint ventures for petroleum exploration and production. At a time when India is taking initiatives for such extensive oil and gas exploration ventures, better safety steps become all the more imperative.
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