India has formula to zap oil from BP spill

India may hold the answer to President Barack Obama's worries over what to do with piles of crude from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. For several years now, oil companies in India have been using a homegrown cocktail of bacteria called Oilzapper to reclaim vast tracts of farmland contaminated by crude leaking from pipelines or oily sludge coming out of other installations.

Using bacteria to clean up an oil slick is called bioremediation and is practised in many parts of the world. But the Indian formulation is unique as it eats up all four layers of crude -- waxy element or saturated hydrocarbons, aromatic component or benzene compounds, NSO (compounds of nitrogen and sulphur) and asphaltene or tar. And unlike other formulations, Oilzapper can work in temperatures ranging from 8-40 degrees Celsius.

An estimated 184 million gallons of crude has spilled into the sea after an explosion in BP's offshore drilling rig in US's southeastern coast on April 20 this year, making it the worst accidental spillage in history.

Banwari Lal, a scientist at the energy and environment think-tank Teri said Oilzapper could help contain the environmental damage due to the spill. "Other bioremediation measures tackle only one or two contents so you may still be left with the task of, say, stowing tar. In Oilzapper we have succeeded in creating a cocktail of four bacteria that do not fight amongst themselves and each feeds on only one layer of crude content. It is also 40% cheaper than other options," he said. Lal holds the patent for Oilzapper and heads the joint venture between Teri and state-run ONGC that markets the formulation.

The formulation was developed by Teri under a central government initiative after the Gulf War-I. It is being used by major oil and power companies, including multinationals, operating in India besides the state-run oil firms of Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. Users in India include Reliance Industries, BG (formerly British Gas), Cairn and Tata Power besides all state-run oil firms. So far, Oilzapper has reclaimed over 20 lakh tonnes of soil in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Assam where these companies have refineries, storage facilities or pipelines.

Lal said Oilzapper is like powder and is sprayed on an oil pool or contaminated soil just like a fertilizer. It takes 3-4 months for the bacteria to eat up the oil. After that the soil is tested by an independent laboratory identified by the Central Pollution Control Board before it is declared safe.

Farmers in Gujarat and Assam contacted by TOI were full of praise for the product. "I have got back about 3-4 bighas of land. For so many years the oil just refused to go. Now I am ready to sow jowar," said Rameshbhai Desai of Jhalora village in Gujarat's Mehsana district.

Rameshbhai, another farmer from the district's Sobhasan village who got back a bigha of his land, said he was initially sceptical but recommends Oilzapper now. "Earlier, we would get monetary compensation from ONGC (which has its crude pipelines there). But what is the use of compensation if your land turns into a wasteland. I have my land back now, it is fit for farming. What more can one ask for?"

Farmer Jeherol Mohammad of Nazira in Assam went a step further and claimed he was getting better yields from his reclaimed land. "I have got back 1.5 bigha of my land. I am a rice and banana farmer. Farming has become easy as the treated soil turns soft with little watering. I am getting better crops from this tract of land than before."

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