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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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