Considering the story is and has been about mud, it’s a remarkably clear (if somewhat contentious) debate.
And it’s a debate that’s been going on ever since mud started spewing from the ground like a gusher more than two years ago.
On May 29, 2006, on the eastern tip of the island of Java in Indonesia, a giant mud volcano erupted, filling the region with a noxious mix of mud, chemicals and, some would say, mendacity. Even before the mud started swallowing up homes and farms and railroad tracks, the questions were being asked.
Not “why” so much, but “how” and “who.”
John Snedden, an AAPG member who’s a reservoir connectivity prediction supervisor with ExxonMobil, wants to begin to answer those questions; so during the October AAPG International Conference and Exhibition in Cape Town, South Africa, he is putting together a symposium on what caused the disaster – natural or otherwise – now known as Lusi (from lumpur, the Indonesian word for mud).
“Mud Volcano: Earthquake or Drilling Trigger?” will be offered in Cape Town as part of the conference’s technical program.
Five speakers representing all sides of the debate will give presentations – reportedly the first time advocates from various positions have been in the same room at the same time – followed by questions, discussions amongst panelists and audience participation.
It will be moderated by a neutral party, AAPG member Jon Gluyas, with Fairfield Energy in Middlesex, England, who will strive to ensure that all views are heard.
Included in the forum will be:
- Richard Davies, department of earth sciences, Durham University, Durham, England.
- Adriano Mazzini, University of Oslo, Norway.
- Bambang Istadi, with Lapindo Brantas, Indonesia.
- AAPG member Mark Tingay, with the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences in Perth, Australia.
- Hasan Abidin, Institute of Technology Bandung, Indonesia.
A Contentious Debate
As to the mud volcano’s origins there are two prevalent theories: It was caused by an earthquake, or it was caused by irresponsible drilling by one of the country’s most prestigious oil and gas operators.
According to Cape Town technical co-chair Snedden, the forum’s purpose is to “draw a line under the scientific controversy” as to whether the mud volcano was caused by PT Lapindo Brantas, a subsidiary of PT Energy Mega Persada Tbk in Indonesia, which was drilling for gas in the Porong, Sidoarjo region, east of Java, or whether Lusi was caused by natural forces, like an earthquake.
This debate is more than an academic exercise – thousands of homes, millions of people and perhaps billions of dollars are at stake, plus usability and habitability of the land for years to come.
Lapindo Brantas geologist Bambang Istadi, perhaps not surprisingly, claims the volcano was caused by natural tectonic forces that occurred two days before Lusi in May 2006. On that day an earthquake hit the Yogyakarta region that killed around 6,000 people and some, including Adriano Mazzini from the University of Oslo, point to that event.
On the other side of the debate, Richard Davies and AAPG member Mark Tingay propose that Lusi was caused by the drilling of the Banjar Panji 1 gas exploration well.
Whatever happened, the what of what happened is clear. After the mud erupted, 30,000-50,000 residents lost their homes and, at present, the region shows signs of irreversible collapse and devastation.
Snedden says before action can be taken on clean up, “We need to agree first on the cause, so we expect an active debate.”
Complicating the issue even further is the fact the man at the center of the storm, Aburizal Bakrie, is not only Indonesia’s minister for social welfare but also part of the family that controls Lapindo Brantas. Bakrie has called the volcano a “natural disaster” unrelated to the drilling activities.
Science vs. Politics?
Snedden may be after the science, but so far – certainly from Davies’ perspective – it is politics and money that has been mostly contested. In fact, a court in Java has already agreed with Bakrie that Lusi was caused by natural forces, a claim Davies rejects.
On National Public Radio recently, Davies said the research on the Yogyakarta earthquake proves it was too small and too far away to have caused the chain of events, concluding that Lusi was “almost certainly” caused by drilling in the area. Specifically, Davies believes that a series of operational events led to a subsurface blowout, which meant the fluids within the well and leaked out on to the surface, which caused the explosion.
As bad as Lusi is, according to Davies, it is not the largest mud volcano (that happened in Azerbaijan), but is the fastest growing.
The debate, almost from the beginning, has been contentious – one environmentalist in Indonesia called Lusi “the worst environmental crime of the century” – and that is why Snedden believes the time is right to bring the sides together.
There are facts that need to be heard and discussed, he believes, and information that needs to be harnessed.
Snedden said the idea of holding this symposium at an AAPG international conference in South Africa grew out of an assembled collection of data gathered by an AAPG technical program committee.
“We decided to elevate these papers to a special technical forum, given the considerable attention in the popular press but also the importance and impact of this event,” he said.
“Geology really does matter here,” he added, “as thousands in Java can attest.”