The mystery of Lusi

The struggle to discover the cause of the eruption of a mud volcano has vital importance for the loc

Volcanoes are usually stately and sometimes violent. Great mountains with smooth slopes and circular calderas, they lie dormant for centuries, or give off occasional wisps of steam and, more rarely, surges of lava and clouds of ash. And every now and then, one of them explodes spectacularly.

But the volcano that erupted at 5am on 29 May 2006 in Porong, Indonesia, was different; no mountain, just a spreading lake of simmering mud and a 30m plume of sulphurous steam. Up to 50,000 people lost their homes, more than a dozen villages were submerged and two dozen factories abandoned. Rice paddies and shrimp ponds were inundated, roads and railways diverted. The death toll so far is 13, killed when a gas pipeline ruptured.

At its peak, the mud volcano, called Lusi, pumps out 150,000 cubic metres a day, enough to fill Wembley Stadium in about three weeks. And it’s been gushing for nearly two and a half years, with no end in sight.

One recent study by a Durham University-led team considered what Lusi would be like if it keeps erupting for another decade. Attempts to cork the volcano by dropping thousands of concrete balls linked by chains into the vent failed completely. Environmentalists fear that diversion of the mudflow into the Porong river will destroy the local fisheries. Meanwhile the levees keep rising.

Mud volcanoes are not well understood, partly because they usually occur on the seabed. What is clear is that a hot, high pressure reservoir of liquid, in this case mostly water, broke through a rocky cap and began percolating through a layer of clay, turning it into mud and carrying it up to geyser forth at the surface.

The cause of this disaster has generated scientific, legal and political debates as heated as the 60C eruption. Two hypotheses are in play, one is that the magnitude 6.3 Yogyakarta earthquake, which killed 6,000 people two days earlier and 260km away, triggered Lusi. The other is that the Banjar Panji-1 drilling rig operated by PT Lapindo Brantas, which was exploring for natural gas just 150 metres from Lusi’s main vent, set it off.

The legal and political arguments swirl around this central scientific issue. Legally the question is who should pay for dealing with the disaster and compensating the victims. If the drilling was at fault, the companies involved should cough up. If it was a consequence of the earthquake, the government is responsible. The stakes are high; the IMF estimates the cost of Lusi at some £2bn.

And that’s where the politics comes in. Lapindo is 50 per cent owned by Energi Mega Persada, part of the business conglomerate controlled by the family of Aburizal Bakrie, Indonesia’s Co-ordinating Minister for the People’s Welfare. Mr Bakrie has been criticised for distancing himself from the disaster, both as a businessman and as a minister. His refusal to visit Lusi prompted angry activists to spray 700kg of mud on his ministry’s gates in Jakarta. Although his family’s company provides food and other aid to the refugees, and has agreed to pay them £240m in compensation, they denounce it at every turn.

The scientific question came to the fore again at the Geological Society of London on 22 October. Proponents of the earthquake hypothesis, employed by the oil companies, claimed that evidence from their well proved its innocence.

Bambang Istadi, a geologist and exploration manager at Energi Mega Persada, argued that if the 2,800m borehole was guilty, a powerful pressure spike, called a kick, would have been observed. Although there was a spike, he said the roughnecks brought it under control in less than an hour, before it could damage the rock formation. Pressure tests since then have shown that the well is intact; with no leaks in or out. Nor is there any evidence of an underground blowout in the formation surrounding the well; if there had been, the borehole’s temperature would have risen to match the volcano’s and the remaining piece of the drill left in the hole would have slipped down into an opening abyss. So if it wasn’t the well, it must have been the earthquake.

Professor Richard Davies of Durham University’s Centre for Research into Earth Energy Systems, who also made a presentation to the Geological Society, remained unconvinced. The kick was powerful enough to damage the rock formation, he argued, and the lower portion of the well had not been sheathed to prevent such problems. The evidence cited by Mr Istadi can be explained if the massive upheaval when the volcano was triggered resulted in the well becoming pressure sealed from what was going on around it. And crucially, the earthquake was too far away and too weak to have caused the mud volcano. So if it wasn’t the earthquake, it must have been the drilling.

The scientific question, then, is far from settled. But progress is being made. So confident are they of their data, that Mr Istadi and the companies have agreed to share it with Professor Davies. If one side or the other can carry the scientific argument, the legal and political issues will be clarified too. For the people whose homes have been swallowed by Lusi, that can only be good.

Paul Rodgers is a freelance science, medicine and technology journalist. He was born in Derby, the son of a science teacher, and emigrated with his family to the Canadian prairies when he was nine. He began writing for a student newspaper in Winnipeg in 1982 and had staff positions on several Canadian dailies. Despite his return to these shores 15 years ago, he still talks with a funny accent.
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.