Happy Birthday, Lusi (the Drilling Totally Did It)

ResearchBlogging.org It’s been two years* since the ground opened near Sidoarjo, Indonesia, spewing mud over the homes, farms, and businesses of tens of thousands of people. The disaster quickly acquired the rather endearing name of “Lusi”, which is short for “lumpur” (Indonesian for mud) and “Sidoarjo”. The two-year anniversary media bonanza has focused on the continuing plight of the refugees and the publication of a new paper analyzing GPS data around the mud volcano to determine that there is, indeed, going to be a big hole in the ground where the mud used to be. Chris Rowan has already blogged about that study, so I’ll not summarize it again here.

However, there’s another paper due out, this time in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, (I’ll link to it here as soon as it’s properly in press – we’re still waiting on the proofs here it is, though it’s behind an Elsevier paywall) discussing the cause of the eruption. The initial eruption was suspiciously near to a gas exploration borehole … but it was also just three days after a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. Could the earthquake have caused the eruption?

Hah. No. It was totally the exploration well.

We – and by “we” I mean Richard Davies (also an author on the study documenting the big hole in the ground), myself, Michael Manga, Rudi Rubiandini, and Richard Swarbrick – came to this conclusion through two main lines of argument. The first is something Michael pointed out in short a 2007 article in EOS: the earthquake in question was smaller and farther away than past earthquakes in that part of Indonesia. Compared to other earthquakes that have made mud do interesting things, it’s rinky-dink.

In the paper, we go on at length about the various ways in which the earthquake was utterly wimpy and unexceptional. I spent a good chunk of last summer estimating the amount of shaking it probably produced and the amount of stress it put on the crust near Lusi. No matter how you slice it, the “trigger” was smaller than anything you might expect to cause an eruption, and also smaller than a bunch of previous earthquakes that didn’t do anything.

Of course, you could still invoke weird, exotic, or handwavy mechanisms by which a run-of-the-mill earthquake could have triggered an eruption. But we found a much simpler explanation: Drilling mud.

Boreholes – especially deep boreholes – are almost always filled with mud. This helps keep the hole from caving in, and prevents other bad things from happening when the drill encounters highly pressurized water or oil. Drillers must constantly monitor and adjust the consistency of the mud to ensure that the mud doesn’t escape into the surrounding rock, and conversely, that the fluid in the surrounding rock doesn’t get into the hole.

The day before the eruption, water from the surrounding rock started flowing into the borehole. In the course of trying to control this, the drillers sealed the top of the hole – but they put a pressure meter inside. We calculated that the weight of the drilling mud, in addition to the pressure recorded at the top of the hole while it was sealed, was enough to muscle into the surrounding rock and force open fractures leading to an eruption.

We don’t say that PT Lapindo Brantas (the company operating the exploration well) should be blamed for the eruption. In order to throw around concepts of blame or liability, we would need to establish not only that the drilling caused the eruption, but that the drilling practices used – the decisions about whether or not to install steel casing in the borehole, or the actions taken to control the well during the days before the eruption – were somehow deficient. Gentle readers, I ain’t touching that question with a ten-foot stand pipe.

  • DAVIES, R., BRUMM, M., MANGA, M., RUBIANDINI, R., SWARBRICK, R., TINGAY, M. (2008). The East Java Mud Volcano (2006 to Present): An Earthquake or Drilling Trigger?. Earth and Planetary Science Letters DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2008.05.029
  • Manga, M. (2007) Did an earthquake trigger the May 2006 eruption of the Lusi mud volcano? EOS, vol. 88, 201 – PDF available here

*Er, technically, two years and two days. I’m not always so good at catching bandwagons.

I managed to fit all of my possessions into a minivan; I’ll be driving up to Seattle over the next couple of days, and comment moderation will be slow. Next post: Whining about earthquake safety as it relates to apartment hunting.


  1. BrianR wrote:

    nice post

  2. ScienceWoman wrote:

    Congratulations on the in press paper and the nice story. It’s always makes me happy when multiple lines of evidence converge on the same explanation.

  3. Lab Lemming wrote:

    Dude, starting a mud volcano would be cool! Maybe we can do that without next project. Anyone wanna make predictions on our chances of finding pressurized mud in the middle of the Australian craton?

  4. Kerrick wrote:

    Guess what, PTLB? You’re a daddy!

    Your two years of overdue child support will be billed presently.

  5. Walter Kessinger wrote:

    Hey Yami!

    Congratulations! Your paper got a mention in Mother Jones —


  6. Andrew wrote:

    Now she’s hit the big time!

  7. Frida Khan wrote:


    I’ve been researching LUSI for a book project which I hope one day to have published… when completed, if completed.

    I find the entire event amazing, from the actions of the drilling company, the plight of the people and the determination of our team lead by Professor Richard Davies.

    I started my project over 20 months ago while involved in a Australian Government funded AUSAID program in Indonesia. I was was lucky enough to use my credentials to gain access to executives from many of the related parties. I spent a day with the person whom designed the bore hole (Pak Rocky- whom was at the time a criminal suspect in the pending court case, poor bugger had his passport held by the police for 12 months).

    Anyway, over a period of time I’ve become somewhat an expert on this subject. Which my boyfriend isn’t really amused about.

    This is what I’ve found.

    The Joga 2006 earthquake wasn’t very large, but it was very unusual. Many earthquakes are recorded in Indonesia each year, but none have caused the deaths of so many people, which this particular earthquake managed to do.

    I met a research team studying the May 2006 earthquake (Indonesian and European experts), whom say over 600 after shocks were recorded within a 3 month period following the earthquake. They also said this earthquake (didn’t quite understand) but they said they had never seem anything like this before, something to do with subsurface movement, which was very unusual. The team later sent me a presentation showing the seismic activity across East Java, and how other known volcanoes reactivated days after the earthquake. One is further way than the mud volcano LUSI.

    When I was in Sidorajo for the second time I met a film crew from the U.S. who were shooting a documentary, they let me join them on a tour with a visiting New Zealand expert. We found many other mud volcanoes (smaller) within 30 kms of the LUSI site, which surprised me. The local villages have been living with these mud volcanoes for 20 years or more. I spoke to many of the women, whom said that the mud and water had been coming out faster since the earthquake and since the Sidorajo mud volcano began. They confirmed and showed us where and how the increases had affected their lives.

    I started to interview people from the area affect by LUSI. They mostly are very simple farmers with little education. One man told me the mud started in Yoga and then came to Sidorajo 3 days later….

    I couldn’t find many people whom remember the earthquake, most wanted to talk about the mud and earthquake as the same thing. I was shown by a local government official damage the earthquake caused to some buildings, and a bridge. They had to dismantle the bridge.

    I started to try and understand what was happening with the refugees. At this time I was lucky to win a small grant from a NGO to report on the social and economic damage, so I could do more research and get paid at the same time.

    Many families were living in a shelter. The management company were distributing IDR 300,000 (USD40) to each person per month. Many people had large families, I met one with 11 kids. The average monthly salary for a family is IDR 800,000 (USD90) so many families were doing quite well. The problem was some people had come into the area claiming to be victims when they weren’t, this caused problems with locals. I met this man who was representing some of the families, this man was horrible. He was claiming that he could get them better deals but they had to pay him huge commissions, I later found out these poor farmers were cheated by many con men whom took advantage of them, they were claiming to be lawyers and mostly likely were lawyers! In fact one claimed he could arrange a demonstration with banners against the drilling company the following day, just for my benefit.

    It was difficult to uncover but finally I was given an understanding of the compensation deals. The drilling company (whom really shouldn’t doing this type of work) were managing the distribution of compensation.

    What I discovered was that the drilling company had agreed to compensate families, business within a defined area, anything outside this area was not the companies problem, but the governments. Whom were doing nothing much.

    People with ownership documents were paid market price in cash.

    They had the opportunity to take 100% payment but then they had to leave the shelter and wouldn’t receive monthly allowances (IDR 300,000 per family member).

    They had a second option to buy a house at cost from the drilling company, whom were building a new housing complex. The company offered to pay a housing rental fee while the new housing development was being built, in addition they would receive 20% advance payment on the purchase of the affect property, and the balance would be offset against the new home cost.

    If you didn’t have ownership papers then a team managed by the drilling company would do some sort of assessment, they had 70 people handling this alone.

    Another option was equal replacement of land in another area.

    I found some people whom had new ID cards, the “real locals” told me many people had moved into the area to claim compensation when they really weren’t affected. I met many whom were poor and were taking advantage, it was hard to say anything against what they were doing.

    What I did also uncover was many people wanted different compensation terms, the scheme approved by the government (president regulation) was meeting the requirements for some. I interviewed a number of families whom had received the rent grant but had spent the money (not on rent) and then moved back into the refuge.

    Once I was taken to a demo by farmers from a nearby village. The were wanting money for loss of harvest, as they couldn’t get enough water, they weren’t affected by the mud and were outside the compensation area. Never-the-less they were protesting against the drilling company, and the media was everywhere covering it.

    After a few trips I met the ‘boss” whom was managing the resettlement and compensation. This man had a very stressing job, dealing with 40,000 people. He showed me plans of the new settlement area, which I recently visited to see if was really more than just a plan. Very nice, already 400 families had moved into their new homes and they seemed very happy.

    I told him that I have a different picture of what has happened and what they have done, which was pretty much in his favor. He did explain that they had had many problems starting the recovery programs, and that they did get into lots of trouble because they were too slow at the beginning. I did point out that they shouldn’t be handling this, experts such as the UN should have come in and helped manage the problem. He explained it was too political and they were told to handle it themselves. He kinda of hinted that they were also protecting the government, from, I have no idea.

    My final report to the migration agency, documents over 370 interviews, about 90% were happy with the outcome, many just didn’t want to leave the land that families had lived on for generations. Graves were now covered in 10 meters of mud, which was hard for these people to accept. The percentage of people not happy in many cases were cheated by con men, getting them to sign over rights to land ownership, or for not accepting the new housing deal.

    What is interesting is the fact that the Indonesian media are very one sided, many Indonesians feel the for the affected population, but they don’t really known the truth. What this company has done is remarkable, I don’t agree at all about them handling it from the beginning, but they seem to have done (finally) a pretty amazing job.

    I spent 6 months in Aceh, I have seen suffering. These people are much better off than many of the Acehese whom have had all sorts of NGO, government and UN assistance.

    But I guess you can’t make everyone happy.

    I’ve been more interested in the social issues, but when I started this project I wanted to cover it from all aspects.

    I really don’t know anything about drilling, I read all the reports, and seen some confidential documents from the 3rd partner, whom won’t go on record. Its pretty disturbing.

    In fact many of the comments made in this blog are based on media reports, which I couldn’t find any supporting evidence that they really happened at all. For example, the FT article by John Aglionby (whom I’ve met many times at the JCC meetings in Jakarta).

    He reported that the company admits that they did something wrong the day before the eruption. He doesn’t quote the person whom he got this from which is unusual, and I’ve asked Lapindo about this and they have said they have no idea who would say such a thing. But people read it and think its true. In another story, also from John at FT he says that Bakrie took over MEDCO’s shares to avoid losing a court case. Again John doesn’t quote names, sources and from what I’ve been told it’s far from the truth.

    What surprises me is that Lapindo does nothing about defending their position, they just keep very quite. (remember the “boss” that I met in Sidorajo, he told me that the Bakrie’s don’t like publicity), strange.

    A few months ago I was introduced to OZ lawyer whom works for one of the law firms representing one of the partners. He says a well known and respected U.S University will be launching a research program studying the cause of the mud volcano. I asked cause? Its pretty well clear that the drilling company did it, but he doesn’t agree with that at all.

    He says independent drilling experts from creditable American, Australian and European teams have been given access to all the official data, and that BP Migas (whom control all data) have been involved in this process. BP Migas are a government regulator, and must approve all transfer of data/information relating to drilling, exploration etc.

    Anyway, he says that these reports were done in 2006 and 2007 and have never been released. He says, all the reports clear the drilling company, and it very detailed. But the government won’t allow the reports to be released, yet.

    What he did also tell me was more on the politics, which needs to be understood to get a clear picture of what’s gone on.

    How he explained:

    Earthquake happens.
    Drilling platform experiences problems minutes after earthquake.
    Aftershock hours later, more drilling problems.
    2 days after earthquake, hot water then mud erupts 200m from drilling platform.
    No panic yet.
    It gets bigger, and panic starts.
    No one knows what happened.
    A week after the eruption, Medco leaks a document blaming the drilling company.
    Soon after Prof. Davies publicly says the drilling company mostly likely are at fault.
    Media in Indonesia say its a cover up.
    Bakrie agree to handle the problem.

    But I’m told its not what it seems.

    This guys says:

    MEDCO leaked the letter so they won’t have any liabilities, as there is a clause for “gross negligence” that removes any liability from the non operating partners.

    It seems this isn’t quite true, and that all the partners knew about the drilling activities, from daily reports, which they all get and including the government agency BP Migas.

    They say MEDCO have been borrowing large amounts to refinance a share restructure, which would put the original owners back in control.

    They had to protect themselves, as they couldn’t afford any potential bills relating to the mud eruption.

    To make matter worse, the media started blaming the government for covering up the cause, and that they were protecting the Bakrie family, whom funded the presidents election campaign.

    The problem compounded when the Bakrie chairman visited Sidorajo with the Indonesian vice president, whom publicly asked (told) him it was their fault and they had to manage the problem, including paying damages.

    The lawyer claims, the Bakrie’s had at this time no idea what was the cause. So they just agreed. (they are rich, worth USD8bn).

    But it got worse. Professor Richard Davies continues to attack them, and over the past 2 years has managed to gather support from other experts.

    This guy goes on to say, the Bakrie’s don’t really care, as they are doing what they agreed to do. However, its affecting the employees (like Rocky), they are the ones whom are suffering. They are the ones facing a jail sentence, if for some reason the police get to reopen the case and they are found guilty. Indonesian jails aren’t nice places.

    These guys have had a good look at Professor Richard Davies, and to he honest now I’m told this I now believe he has a hidden agenda, as they do.

    1. He attacks the company within weeks of the disaster.
    2. He comes to Indonesia and doesn’t ask the drilling company for data.
    3. He mets executives from MEDCO.
    4. He claims to have confidential data, and cannot name sources.
    5. BP Migas say he may have obtained data illegally, as they never approved data transfer to a third party, which is tightly controlled. Or he has manufactured data, which isn’t correct, and may support the interests of unknown parties.
    6. He rushed his first paper, which is suspect.
    7. He asked other experts to supply data, whom were already researching LUSI but hadn’t released their paper yet.
    8. Paper’s and comments are being managed by a UK public relations firm.
    9. He and his partners have commercial interests.

    All very suspect, this lawyer tells me. What is his aim? This seems to be only hurting employees, whom were doing a job.

    One word- Geopolitics.


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