Villagers in Northeast Thailand’s long fight against oil drilling

Despite strong local protests, Thailand’s military regime is going ahead with oil drilling in Kalasin province in northeast Thailand. As the regime breaks its promise of a just energy policy, local people are paying for the real costs of the country’s ambitious energy plans.

In early February 2015, the rumbling noises of trucks were heard from afar in a remote village of northeastern Thailand. The local people rushed out of their houses to discover that a huge line of trucks with oil drilling equipment were rolling along the main village road under the escort of military and police officers.

Since early 2015, Na Moon and Doon Sat, two quiet farming villages in Takanto and Kranuan District of Kalasin and Khon Kaen province in northeast Thailand, have become the targets for oil drilling as government officials and experts from petroleum companies have flocked to the villages to test the potential for underground fossil fuel deposits. At the beginning of the year, Thailand’s military government gave the green light for Apico (Korat) Limited, a US-based oil and gas exploration company, to explore oil drilling in these areas.

The villagers fear that the oil drilling would pollute their fields and rivers and destroy their livelihoods. Local opposition to the drilling plan only briefly resulted in suspending the project. This time around, the villagers could only sit down on the side of the road and pray for mercy from the military government to stop the pollution of their lands from oil drilling operations.

Petroleum resources and the Thai state

In Thailand, the state has always assumed sole ownership of the petroleum resources in the country. Although there have been debates whether the government should distribute oil and gas production revenues to other stakeholders, such as local administrators or inhabitants, the Thai administrations usually give out concessions to private contractors.

Once the Energy Ministry grants concessions to a private operator, it can carry out petroleum exploration in specific areas under the condition that the company is obligated by law to pay back 50 per cent of income tax to the state if the petroleum resources in the areas can be extracted for commercial interests.

At high-level discussions about petroleum concessions on 20 February 2015, the 21st Petroleum Concession Discussion, the debates on Thailand’s petroleum resources continued. Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Prime Minister, said at the meeting that the current laws related to petroleum concessions, the 1971 Petroleum Act and Petroleum Income Tax Act, would be revised and amended to suit greater public interests.

“There will be more discussions [on the petroleum concessions]. It’s not just about amending the laws concerned, but there will be other procedures involved on what should be done to bring about the greatest public good,” said Gen. Prayut.

According to Dr. Narongchai Akrasanee, the Energy Minister, once the petroleum laws are amended, the new laws will give more authority to the Thai state to set extra conditions on oil and gas explorations and distributions, making it fairer for the Thai public.

At the end of the meeting, Gen. Prayut urged the public to understand how important it is for the government to ensure Thailand would have enough energy for the nation’s and people’s wellbeing since over 75 per cent of the country’s energy consumption comes from natural gas. For the villagers of Na Moon and Doon Sat, however, it seems that the junta leader’s promise of well-being does not apply to everyone equally.

Oil fields of controversy

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), from 12-17 February 2015 about 45 trucks loaded with petroleum drilling equipment of Apico Company entered an area referred to as ‘L27/43’ of Takanto District of Kalasin, which is within a five km-radius of Doon Sat village.

Despite the opposition of Doon Sat villagers and an order from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to halt the operations due to the villagers’ concerns, about 200 police, military, and volunteered defence officers assisted the oil company’s operation.

On the night of 15 February 2015, about 20 military and police officers from Khon Kaen Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) came to talk to the villagers and village leaders. They threatened to use force under martial law if the villagers obstructed the company’s operations because the Department of Mineral Fuels under the Energy Ministry had already gave permission for the company for oil exploration.

According to Lerdsak Kamkongsak, an environmental activist and researcher based in northeast Thailand, the villagers were only informed a day before the company began to transport the drilling equipment into the area. He pointed out that under Thailand’s Environmental Protection and Mitigation Measures’ framework, the authorities must inform the villagers in affected areas at least 15 days before the petroleum exploration takes place.

Lerdsak pointed out that although the Thai government gave a petroleum concession in the area to Apico Company since 2003, the villagers of Doon Sat still have many doubts about the oil drilling, which have not been answered by the company and relevant authorities.

“Villagers want to know about the chemicals that might be used in the exploration process and what would happen if there is contamination of underground aquifers that the villagers use for agriculture and consumption,” said Lerdsak.

For Chainarong Sretthachau, a lecturer at Mahasarakham University who is currently working with the villagers to campaign against the drilling operation, the most dangerous impact from the drilling would be from hydrogen sulfide gas which is commonly found together with petroleum in northeast Thailand.

He said that from a study conducted in Kam Pai and Non-Sanga village in Kalasin, located near a 3 km-deep gas drilling plant, six villagers got heavily ill from leakage of hydrogen sulfide gas and about 200 other villagers said they experienced dizziness and breathing problems. This does not include the possible long terms effects of contamination of underground water sources by the gas.

In an interview with Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS), Decharut Sukkumnoed, a lecturer of the Faculty of Economics from Kasetsart University, pointed out that the Thai authorities tend to ignore local people when it comes to giving out concessions to private companies over resources. He added that on certain projects once business operators obtained state concessions the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is not even carried out ahead of operations, leading up to conflicts with local residents.

“In the areas which the state plans to concede to businesses, local people should be informed about what will happen in the areas and when and what they could do once the concessions are given away. At the same time, [the authorities] should also listen to the voices of the locals if they would welcome the changes or not,” said Decharat.

Company ignores local concerns; military presence leads to an atmosphere of fear

More than 90 per cent of Doon Sat villagers grow rubber trees and cassava to earn their living. Farmers state that although the company has already conducted the EIA prior to the exploration, they were not involved when it was conducted as if their opinions on the drilling do not matter.

“The company organised a forum under the military’s guard and told us to sign our names to participate in the meeting. Otherwise, we would not be allowed in and would not be given some gifts such as milk sachets in return. But then they used our names to obtain the documents to proceed with the drilling. How could they treat us like this?,” asked a farmer who asked not to be identified for security reasons.

From January to February 2015, Apico Company organised three public forums about the drilling plan attended by the company representatives, local administrators, military officers, and the locals. The third forum established a committee comprising the company’s staff and village heads to mediate the conflict between the villagers and the company.

But since most Doon Sat villagers could not participate in the forums, they feel that their interests are ignored or misrepresented. Moreover, the fact that the military officers were always present at the forums organised by the company made them feel it was unsafe to express their concerns about the drilling operations.

The authorities even prevented local villagers to show a documentary film about petroleum drilling in their community. According to TLHR, 8 to 9 police officers from Nong Kung Si Police Station in Nong Kung Si District of the northeastern province of Kalasin on 23 August 2015 came to Khok Khruea Subdistrict and ordered a local environmental conservation group to stop a screening of a documentary film ‘Open the Wound of Isan’s Petroleum’.

The documentary produced by Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS) is about controversial oil and gas fields in Kalasin and the adjacent province of Khon Kaen, where the Thai authorities have given concessions to Apico (Korat) Limited to explore the area.

The officers pointed out that showing the documentary in public could be illegal under Thailand’s Copyright Act, that the contents of the documentary might be false, and then they abruptly asked the Nong Yai environmental conservation group to cancel the event. There were about 20 villagers at the film screening which the group organised to educate local people about the controversies of petroleum concessions, TLHR reported.

On 25 February 2015, not far from Kalasin and Khon Kaen Province, military officers visited Thawatchai Surat, a northeastern energy activist, and brought him to Buriram Muang Police Station and tried to force him to sign an agreement not to campaign against a petroleum operator. However, Thawatchai refused. Thawatchai is one of the activists who has been campaigning against petroleum exploration by Shaanxi Yanchang Petroleum, a Chinese petroleum company granted state concessions by the Department of Mineral Fuels since 2014 to explore potential oil fields in the northeastern provinces of Buriram, Maha Sarakham, Roi Et, and Surin.

At the police station, the authorities asked Thawatchai to report details about villagers who are against the company and whether they are backed by politicians or interest groups, and their demands. Thawatchai added that the authorities also asked about the Thai PBS TV programme ‘Real Life Is Worse than a Soap Opera’, which interviewed him last year about the impact of exploration operations in the region, and instructed him to inform the authorities of any planned future programme about the conflict.

Locals preparing for a long fight against oil drilling

Since the conflict against the Apico Company, the villagers have got together and founded the Anurak Ban Na Moon and Doon Sat Group to voice their environmental concerns against the oil drilling. On 16 June 2015, they traveled to Bangkok to submit a statement to the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP) and the Ministry of Energy to urge the two state agencies to come up with measures to protect the local environmental from gas drilling activities.

On 5 October 2015, about 20 trucks loaded with petroleum drilling equipment entered the Dongmoon petroleum field against the locals’ opposition. Prior to this incident, Apico informed the villagers that they will run a second test on petroleum deposits in Dong Moon for about a month starting from 7 October.

The local activists and villagers oppose the company’s plan to run the test, reasoning that the EIA which was approved by the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning did not mention a second test drill.

The Na Moon and Doon Sat Conservation Group and local citizens on 2 October 2015 submitted a letter to the Governor of Khon Kaen to look into the matter, but there has been no response from the provincial administration. Until the Thai authorities start to take any concrete measures to address their concerns, the Doon Sat villagers are prepared for a long, hard fight to protect their families and farms from environmental pollution.

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