Indonesian Oil Refinery Ablaze After Massive Explosion

Indonesian Oil Refinery Ablaze After Massive Explosion
A massive fire rages at the Balongan refinery, operated by state oil company Pertamina, in Indramayu, West Java, on March 29, 2021. (Photo: Agus Sipur, Getty Images)
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A massive blaze lit up at an Indonesia oil refinery in the wee hours of Monday morning, sparking continuous flames for hours. At least five people have been seriously burned and 950 nearby residents have been evacuated. One person, a 61-year-old local, had a heart attack while evacuating and died.

The fire at the refinery on the island of Java in West Java Province came alight after an explosion just after midnight on Monday. Local news sources said the boom could be heard dozens of kilometres away. Footage captured by locals show a massive wall of flames and plumes of smoke spewing into the sky like something out of a horror movie.

The fire is still burning as of Monday night local time. Officials aren’t sure how quickly firefighters will be able to put it out, but a spokesperson for Indonesian state oil company Pertamina, which operates the Balongan refinery, said it has been contained to four tanks in the middle of the plant and will no longer spread. The exact cause of the fire is not yet clear, though when it began, a thunderstorm with lightning was underway.

No refinery workers have reportedly been injured by the fire, but regional disaster management authorities said five people are being treated for serious burns in the hospital, and another 15 are being treated with smaller ones. Despite the catastrophic images, Pertamina’s CEO told Reuters that the blaze will not disrupt operations, which says nothing good about the firm’s priorities. In a statement, the company said it has lost more than 400,000 barrels of oil in the blaze, but that it plans to make the plant operational again in just four or five days.

This isn’t Pertamina’s first time coming under fire for an environmental disaster. In 2019, a crude oil well operated by the firm sprung a leak which stayed open for weeks, creating a toxic oil slick that covered more than 11,100 acres of the sea and reached 11 villages, widely disrupting fishing communities’ economic activity and the local tourism industry. The year before the spill, Pertamina also caught heat for another leak, caused by a cracked undersea pipeline.

Oil provides a larger share of Indonesia’s power than any other energy source. To ensure people still have fuel while the Balongan refinery is shut down, Permina said it would supply oil from other nearby refineries and terminals. In the short term, that’s better than people going without power. But ultimately, if Indonesia doesn’t move away from fossil-based energy, these disasters will likely continue to happen.

Without urgent action, Indonesians could be affected not only by more terrifying local impacts of fossil fuel extraction and burning, but also by the climate crisis which the use of fossil fuels is causing. The country is expected to see temperatures increase and rainfall become far more erratic amid the worsening climate crisis. Hot and dry conditions could also exacerbate dangerous peat fires, a common occurrence in a nation where farmers use fire to clear land.

Fossil fuels make up a large part of Indonesia’s economy. The country is the fourth-largest producer of coal in the world and Southeast Asia’s biggest gas supplier. This dependency is further enshrined by the government providing extractive industries with tax breaks and loose regulations. Recently, the government has turned to propping up the coal industry by investing in gasification, a wasteful and polluting process that has largely fallen out of favour elsewhere.

Indonesia is in the world’s top 10 greenhouse gas emitters, but it is a poor, developing country, so some environmentalists have called on that the world’s wealthier nations pitch in to help it wean itself off of fossil fuels, as has the nation’s president. Whatever it takes, national and international officials should do all they can to move the country away from fossil fuels as soon as possible. The devastating refinery fire provides one more reason that the time to kick dirty fuel is now.