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Unfilled Barrels: India’s oil story – Richa Mishra

by Venky

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Richa Mishra’s India’s Oil Story is a sneak peek into the trajectory of the measures undertaken by a nation to extricate itself from the burden of external dependency, and in striving to attain self-sufficiency in producing one of the most important commodities (if not the most important) that binds together 1.4 billion people – oil and natural gas. India’s Oil Story is also a primer on a burgeoning potential that has been at times ingeniously used, while at others, recalcitrantly misused and even brazenly abused. Richa Mishra also uses the means of her book to bring to the reader’s attention individuals and corporates that have adopted a blend of the ordinary and the uncommon to miraculously produce liquid gold from universally and disdainfully designated barren geologies/geographies.

As Ms. Mishra enlightens her readers, India’s oil story has at its nub the north-eastern province. The first well was dug at the Digboi field in Assam courtesy the Assam Railways and Trading Company Limited. Folklore has it that a herd of logging elephants returned to their camp with their feet glistening in oil, following a nocturnal sojourn to seek food and water. Astonished and intrigued people followed the pachyderm trail to a salt lick where seepages were prolific. Mesmerised by this discovery a euphoric English owner cried out to his men, ‘Dig, boy, dig.’ Hence the name, Digboi.

The year 1955 marked a watershed moment in India’s Hydrocarbon history when the Oil and Natural Gas Directorate was set up under the erstwhile Ministry of Natural Resources and Scientific Research. An able team of scientists headed by the redoubtable Keshav Dev Malaviya undertook extensive foreign tours with an avowed objective of stitching up technical collaborations. Since being bestowed upon the status of a corporation under the Indian Companies Act, ONGC and its international arm, ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) have gone places. ONGC is responsible for discovering six out of the seven oil and gas-producing basins in India, including the famous and prolific Mumbai High. By the beginning of 2020, ONGC has discovered 9.997 billion tonnes (BT) (3P) and 8.82 BT (2P) of oil and oil-equivalent hydrocarbon in place. Boasting a jaw dropping 620 discoveries, and counting, this behemoth has also enriched the Indian exchequer to the tune of a humongous contribution in excess of Rs.10 lakh crore!

If ONGC is India’s Public Sector crown jewel in the domain of energy, Cairn Energy the Scottish Oil & Gas giant – which is now unfortunately embroiled in a taxation dispute with the Government of India – has been an adopted ‘Desi’ entity that has made yeoman strides in putting India on the hydrocarbon world map. Incredulously commencing operations in the Asian region, courtesy a telex, Cairn Energy’s efforts in India have ensured that the Mangala, Bhagyam and Aishwarya oil fields together have gross reserves of approximately 2.2 billion barrels of oil equivalent. Cairn also is responsible for approximately 40 discoveries in the area and, together with its partners, the company invested approximately INR 45,000 crore (US$6 billion) in projects that have benefitted India, its oil and gas industry and local communities. One such project was the construction of the world’s longest heated pipeline (600km) to take crude from the Mangala processing terminal to India’s western coast. Cairn’s discoveries have generated revenues of more than INR 150,000 crore (US$20 billion) for the state and national government.

However, the Indian Oil & Gas sector is plagued by internecine strife and intransigent Government policies. An almost sustained difference of opinion between the Director General of Hydrocarbons (Upstream Sector) and the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (downstream and midstream) have resulted in moves that are at cross purposes. The National Exploration and Licensing Policy (NELP) which contained some uniquely attractive incentives such as flexible pricing for oil and natural gas, reduced royalty rates depending upon the production areas, absence of signature, discovery and production bonuses and placing state owned and private enterprises on an even keel, was unfortunately replaced by another Hydrocarbon Exploration and Licensing Policy (HELP). The primary reason for such a move being allegations of ‘gold plating’ (contractors inflating their expenses so that the Government take by way of royalties and taxes are reduced). As Ms. Mishra asserts this represents a few rotten apples otherwise tarnishing an entire landscape.

The book also contains interesting allusions to corporate espionage, unsavoury episodes involving the warring Ambani siblings, and deliberate leaks within the corridors of power extending all the way up to the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas. Making duplicate keys and ferreting out secret documents to make copies from a Paan shop strategically functioning within the vicinity of the premises housing the Oil & Gas Ministry, employing cell phones to capture key excerpts from documents before strategically leaking them all ensured that there was an urgent escalation in the process of transparency by way of making processes and policies open and available for public consumption on official websites.

Unfilled Barrels whets the appetite of the rustic and the informed alike and spurs both on to understanding in depth, the future of a nation that has declared its intention to firmly set itself on the path of energy justice and equity, and all the seemingly insurmountable hurdles that stare it in its otherwise indomitable face.

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