Opposing views ‘refereed’ in Cape Town

Mud Volcano Cause Discussed

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

John Underhill is a professor at the Grant Institute of Earth Science, School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He also is a past AAPG Distinguished Lecturer and was the featured luncheon speaker at the 2007 AAPG international conference in Athens, Greece.
John Underhill is a professor at the Grant Institute of Earth Science, School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He also is a past AAPG Distinguished Lecturer and was the featured luncheon speaker at the 2007 AAPG international conference in Athens, Greece.
The LUSI mud volcano came into being in northeast Java on May 29, 2006, and since its initial eruption it has turned the Sidoarjo region in Porong into a scene of devastation, flooding over seven square kilometers and leading to the evacuation of well over 25,000 people from the villages affected by the unconstrained mud flow.

While efforts to stem the mud flow have been tried and have failed, geoscientific debate has raged as to what triggered the disaster. Was it perhaps the natural consequence of a magnitude 6.3 earthquake centred on Yogyakarta, around 175 miles (280 kilometers) away, that occurred a couple of days before the eruption, or was it caused by an unnatural, man-induced occurrence resulting from the drilling of a gas exploration borehole, Banjar Panji-1, being drilled by Lapindo Brantas, only 200 meters or so away from the resultant eruption?

The destructive and far-reaching LUSI mud volcano of northeast Java, still a controversial subject for scientists, politicians and industry officials, was in the spotlight in a Cape Town special forum.

When the technical program for the AAPG meeting in Cape Town arrived over the summer, I was intrigued that a special session on the causes of the LUSI mud volcano was listed among the conference offerings, with all the main protagonists for the competing theories to present their scientific evidence and perhaps for the one and only time in a public arena populated by industry experts.

Knowing about and being interested but essentially lacking specialized knowledge of the factual geoscientific details behind the arguments, I immediately highlighted it as one to attend and then thought little more of it – that is, until AAPG co-technical chair John Sneddon tracked me down in Murchison Falls National Park, where I was on a pre-conference field trip, to say that the original session chair, John Gluyas, was now unable to attend and wondered if, given my independence, I might fulfil the role?

Having been so keen to attend anyway, I readily agreed to taking on what I saw as a fascinating and challenging task as a facilitator with a front-row seat.

The Cape Town session drew the attention of the global media and was widely reported.

When the day and time for the debate arrived it was immediately clear that this would be unlike any previous AAPG session that I had chaired. Evidently and inevitably, it would call upon skills honed in another world entirely – namely the numerous football (soccer) stadiums where I had refereed. The participants were tense and the hall full. It passably resembled a competitive match atmosphere like some I had indeed witnessed during matches in my international and national football career.

I saw my role very much as a conductor of proceedings as anything and had a wish simply to keep a “light touch on the tiller” so as to allow each of the speakers the best opportunity to present their cases, while also to maximize audience participation and discussion. I wished to follow the old (and in my view, correct) adage that “the best referees are the ones that you do not notice.”

Consequently, I set about outlining the debating rules so as to avoid distracting interjections from protagonists in much the same way that a referee imposes authority on a game in the early stages. In doing so, each of the talks went well: two were given for the earthquake cause, by Adriano Mazzini and Nurrochmat “Rocky” Sawolo, the drilling engineer on the well itself, followed by two of the main champions for the drilling cause, Mark Tingay and Richard Davies. Susila Lusiaga, an independent drilling engineer and one of the experts interviewed by the Indonesian police after being provided access to all the drilling data, also presented key data during Davies’ talk.

Informed questions came from members of the audience at the end of each talk, each of whom, as I had requested, identified themselves and their affiliations, to ensure full participation beyond the main combatants to encourage and ensure independence.

AAPG Non-Endorsement Policy

It is a stated policy that AAPG neither endorses nor recommends any products or services that may be available in any way cited, used or discussed in AAPG copyrighted publications or in presentations at events associated with AAPG.

The voting process during a session at the AAPG International Conference and Exhibition held in Cape Town was a decision by the moderator and only reflected opinions of a group of individuals in the session room at that time.

The action in no way should imply the endorsement of the Association, nor should it be considered a scientific validation of the comments made one way or the other during the session.  

Having heard all the main presentations, I then invited all the principal speakers to join me on the top table to field queries from the audience in a question-and-answer session and to debate the issues with each other. A lively debate ensued. As it did I increasingly wondered whether the high quality and highly dignified and professional nature of the debate had led to the drawing of conclusions, and at the end of an hour question-and-answer session offered the AAPG session audience the chance to vote.

In doing so, I made clear that the vote should be based on the arguments that they had presented to them during the session and formulated the question as:

“On the Basis of what you have had presented to you today, do you think that the most likely cause of the LUSI mud volcano was:

  • An earthquake?
  • Drilling of the Banjar Panji-1 exploration well?
  • A combination of earthquake and drilling?
  • The arguments presented are inconclusive.

Of the 74 members of the audience that voted, 42 decided that the evidence was sufficiently clear that drilling was the trigger. Three opted for the earthquake cause alone, 13 thought that a combination of earthquake and drilling was the probable cause and a further 16 thought the evidence still inconclusive.

The fact that 55 voters (74 percent) voted for drilling having some if not the only cause suggested that the AAPG session attendees felt that, irrespective of what the final outcome might prove to be with more raw data on the table, the earthquake cause was less likely and that there was still a strong and clear case for the drilling company to answer.

Being an unusual occurrence more reminiscent of 19th century geo-meetings and Oxford Union debates than most geological conferences – and given the extensive media coverage and PR build-up to the session – its outcome was subsequently widely reported in the world media, respected geoscientific journals, university press offices and blogs.

It is inevitable that holding any vote runs the risk of being interpreted as there having been “winners” and “losers” of course and criticism of the chair arising from “loosing parties” having perceived to have done so, but that is just the sort of post-match analysis that I was used as a referee!

Irrespective of the pros and cons of calling a vote, the key thing for me is this: If the show of hands becomes the catalyst for further understanding and eventual agreement and closure on the causes of the devastation being suffered in Java, the debate and its vote will have been a good thing. As expressed by more than one audience member, it is all well and good understanding the triggers of the mud volcano, (but) a priority should be to help disadvantaged locals who are struggling to cope with their loss of home and livelihood as a result.

That the main speakers are now intending to meet in the New Year to do just that is a testament to the success of the AAPG session. It is a very welcome thing, and I wish them every success in resolving the current inconsistencies between their respective positions. Should that not succeed, open, independent and binding geo-arbitration might be the only recourse to avoid “Erin Brockovich-type” protracted litigation.

If the debate should go anyway to effecting a speedy conclusion to the geoscientific understanding of what happened when it did, where it did and provide a proper basis for any meaningful and legitimate compensation claims, AAPG will, in my view, have done a significant public service in holding and facilitating the debate at one of their highly prestigious annual international conference sessions and demonstrated their commitment to people and the environment, both of which are firmly implanted in the AAPG mission.  

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Referee: A Practitioner Of Both Art and Science

This May, at the end of the Scottish Premier League (SPL) season, AAPG member John Underhill (who in his “spare time” is professor of stratigraphy in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences) blew his final whistle as a national and international FIFA soccer referee.

Fourteen of his 27 years were spent at the top levels of Scottish and European football; and his final two games were both at Fir Park, Motherwell, where fans saw now-defunct Gretna beat Hearts 1-0, and Motherwell clinch a place in Europe – while also thwarting Rangers’ chances for the championship in a 1-1 draw that was transmitted around the world on live TV.

Since beginning his refereeing career (while still a geology undergraduate at Bristol University) John has handled around 1,500 games – including 132 SPL matches, over 40 international appointments (including several Champions League and World Cup games) and four national cup finals. He now plies his refereeing trade on the Masters Football Circuit.

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