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Press Release [FREE Access]
Petro Intelligence » Ominous Force Out To Scuttle West Coast Refinery Project

By R. Sasankan

Blink, and you would certainly miss it.

That's exactly what has happened with the Indian media. In January, a key deadline set by the promoters for the 60 million tonne per annum mega oil refinery on the west coast of Maharashtra passed with not a squeak of a mention anywhere.

The huge, $ 44 billion refinery has remained a paper project after the grand announcement five years ago. Three state-owned refining and marketing companies – Indian Oil Corporation, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum – had proposed then that they would jointly promote and operate the mega refinery project of 60 million tonnes to be established in two phases. The first unit would have a refining capacity of 40 million tonnes per annum and the second 20 million tonnes per annum.

To be fair, the project had been mired in controversy from the start, mainly stemming from orchestrated popular protests over the acquisition of land in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. Then came the Narendra Modi government's plan to rope in Aramco of Saudi Arabia and ADNOC of Abu Dhabi as partners. These companies joined the consortium of promoters in April 2018.

The project continues to dangle in hope even though no new deadline has been set for land acquisition. A flicker of excitement was raised when the Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said recently that his government was keen to have the refinery complex in the state  at a new location. There has been no word since --and no one is even suggesting that the suspense is killing because the global oil business has gone through a wringer after a Covid-battered year with no clarity on the future of projects worldwide, leave alone India.

The promoters are not insisting on Nanar, the original location for the project which sparked the agitation. Their interest is only on a coastal location and this could be anywhere in the state. The previous government had suggested an alternate location in Raigad district which was rejected by the promoters. They have been insisting on the notification of a new location at the earliest so that they can go back to the drawing board and start from scratch.

It is important to clear the fog over the project. It is now abundantly clear that there is no environmental issue associated with the project. The people are not opposed to the project either and, in fact, they started lobbying to bring the project back to their region. Land is available in plenty, almost 80 per cent of it is uninhabited.

The promoters’ insistence on a coastal location is legitimate. All over the world, mega refineries are located in coastal areas. This makes it easier to source imported crude and transport finished products. Although 90 per cent of liquid fuels are transported through pipelines, a coastal location is required for transporting petrochemicals and chemicals. Even for transporting equipment and materials for the refinery project, coastal transport is far more economical than road transport.

But all this said, there still remains a cloud of uncertainty over the project, which hasn't been dispelled by all the utterances emanating from state political leaders. Who will take a final decision on the location of the refinery? Obviously, it has to be the Government of Maharashtra. It is true that the original agitation against the refinery was organised under the leadership of the Shiv Sena which is leading the coalition of parties ruling the State now. Among the Indian States, Maharashtra has the distinction of being the worst hit by the pandemic. Normally, a refinery of this scale and size, with a massive employment potential, should come as a huge relief to any state government. Politically, it should be advantageous to the ruling coalition. Still an air of indifference is discernible even among the ruling political circles. This really defies political logic.

I understand that the refinery project is being developed on a cluster concept. There can be many clusters of associated industries around the refinery, creating enormous employment opportunities.

A part of the problem arose when the state-owned companies were asked in 2018 to accommodate Aramco and ADNOC. Ever since speculation has swirled that Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) has not been completely involved in the project, amid growing fears that the Saudi oil giant would start calling the shots -- a loathsome prospect as far as IOC is concerned.

But these reports are unfounded. The Indian PSUs, led by IOC, have a 50 per cent stake in the project with the remaining 50 per cent going to Aramco and its partner ADNOC. Thus, IOC and Aramco are equal partners. A mega refinery of 60 MMTPA should have feedstock guarantee and this is precisely why the Indian PSUs sought an overseas partner.

The general impression within the petroleum circles is that the state government is looking for guidance from some outside force whose identify is not known. This force need not necessarily be from outside the country. It obviously is a formidable force and it has been able to stall such a prestigious project for such a long time.

True, this is the first time that Saudi Arabia has proposed such a huge investment in India. Politically, Saudi Arabia has moved closer to India. This development triggered speculation that Iran could be the mysterious hobgoblin looking to scuttle the project. Inquiries with India’s intelligence agencies reveal that Iran has absolutely no role to play in the agitation against the refinery project. In fact, Iran has not so far interfered in India’s internal affairs nor has it financed any terrorist group against the country. Pakistan is not suspected to be involved as its interest in India is confined to pure and genuine acts of terrorism and not in "less worthy" issues like undermining a business project.

This narrows the arc of suspicion to the business groups within the country. Most of the leading business men in Mumbai are not known to play insidious games. The house of Tatas is the largest and has an impeccable record of personal and professional integrity. The Ambani group is a large player in the refinery sector but its business interests do not seem to be in conflict with those of the mega refinery. Aramco and the ruling Saudi family are known to enjoy very good relations with Mukesh Ambani and his company, Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), which rules out their role in blocking the mega refinery project.

My search for this invisible force took me to a very top business executive quite familiar with the mega refinery project and the developments associated with it. He does not believe that the mega refinery project will come up as planned. According to his information, the mega refinery project has not been placed before the Saudi king for approval so far, which is mandatory. The King, he says, can decide either way. There is no way of cross-checking the veracity of his information. It could be right or totally wrong but I am convinced that some powerful force within the country is monitoring the project. Its intention could be noble or ignoble. I am almost convinced that it is the very same force which is standing in the way of land acquisition for the refinery project.



To download the latest issue 'Volume 28 Issue 5 - June 10, 2021', click here
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