Indonesia investigates oil spill in Java Sea by state energy company

The slick from state-owned energy company Pertamina has spread as far as 84 kilometres to the west. Last year, five people were already killed when oil from the firm's ruptured pipeline caught fire in Borneo.

pertamina oil tankers
Pertamina tankers in Jawa Timur, Indonesia. Image: Ikhlasul Amal, CC BY-SA 2.0

A newly drilled oil well operated by Indonesian state-owned energy company Pertamina has been spilling thousands of barrels of oil into the sea and the northern Java coast for nearly three weeks now.

The spill is believed to have been caused by a pressure imbalance in the well bore, known as a well kick, at Pertamina’s Offshore North West Java block on July 12. The company says it has deployed 30 boats, 3,500 metres (11,500 feet) of offshore oil boom, 3,000 metres (9,800 feet) of shoreline oil boom, and 700 metres (2,300 feet) of fishing net to contain the spill. It also says it has scooped up 17,830 sacks of oil-contaminated sand.

The well was still leaking oil as of July 31, according to an environment ministry official.

“It’s still in the emergency phase,” Rasio Ridho Sani, the ministry’s head of law enforcement, told reporters on the sidelines of an event in Jakarta. “[Pertamina] has to stop the spill and we have no idea when that will happen.”

Rasio said the ministry had deployed a team to monitor Petamina’s management of the spill and investigate the cause.

Pertamina says it expects to shut off the well in eight weeks. The spill has pumped an estimated 3,000 barrels of oil a day into the sea since it began, according to the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s biggest green NGO. Satellite imagery from Walhi also shows that the slick has spread across an area covering more than 4,500 hectares (11,100 acres). The energy ministry said separately that the oil was now dispersed as far as 84 kilometres (52 miles) west of the well.

Pertamina says the oil has affected 11 villages, including in the districts of Karawang and Bekasi, which are satellite cities of the capital, Jakarta. Up to 80 percent of the fishing communities in Karawang and Bekasi have incurred some degree of economic losses as a result of the spill, Walhi says, and some 300 people involved in the local tourism industry have also been impacted by the oil washing up on beaches. The spill has also impacted on fish and shrimp farms in the coastal flats off Karawang and Bekasi, according to Meiki Paendong, Walhi’s executive director for the province of West Java.

“The oil spill in the ocean and coast of Karawang is threatening the sources of livelihood and the sustainability of the environment,” he said.

U.S. well control company Boots & Coots, affiliated with the U.S. oil well services contractor Halliburton, has begun the process of shutting off the damaged well with a cement injection, according to the energy ministry.

The government’s priorities are to minimise the impact from the spill and close the damaged well quickly, according to Dwi Soetjipto, the head of the national oil regulatory agency.

The oil spill in the ocean and coast of Karawang is threatening the sources of livelihood and the sustainability of the environment.

Meiki Paendong, executive director, Indonesian Environmental Forum (Walhi)

“Our target is that the spill won’t reach the beach by increasing the number of oil boom. And then to close down immediately the broken well,” he said as quoted by the Jakarta Post.

Pertamina said it would take at least three months for affected areas to recover from the environmental impacts of the oil spill.

Walhi plans to assist affected residents in filing a lawsuit against Pertamina over the spill. “Pertamina must fully restore the marine ecosystem, beaches and mangroves that are affected by the oil spill,” Meiki said.

The north Java spill is the latest such incident involving Pertamina. In March 2018, a Pertamina pipeline in Balikpapan Bay, in the Bornean province of East Kalimantan, ruptured and leaked crude oil after being hit by a ship passing through the area. Five people were killed after the oil caught on fire. The slick also contaminated a mangrove forest, prompted thousands of health complaints, and was blamed for the death of an endangered dolphin.

An official investigation of the Balikpapan Bay spill found faults in the company’s operations. Among the findings by the environment ministry: the Pertamina refinery in Balikpapan that the pipeline served lacked both an early-warning system and an automated monitoring system. The latter would have alerted Pertamina immediately to changes in the pressure level in the pipeline and thus allowed the firm to respond swiftly to the leak.

The ministry’s investigators also found that Pertamina failed to carry out routine inspections of the pipeline. Instead, the company only did so when needed or when required for certification purposes once every three years. The investigation also uncovered omissions from Pertamina’s environmental impact assessment document, including a lack of studies on the pipeline’s maintenance.

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