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Digboi: The Birth Place of Oil Industry of India and Asia

The North East India is one of the most beautiful regions of India. It is popular and famous for its diversity with forests, rivers, mountains, flora and fauna, fascinating ethnicities, Himalayan panorama, undulating terrains, green tea gardens, fabulous wildlife and bird sancturies, mystical temples, colourful festivals, enjoyable folk music and greatful dances etc. Among the North-Eastern states, Assam is well known as the land of Blue hills, with its mighty red river Brahmaputra, Barak River, the one horned Rhinocerous, indigenous crude oil, tea gardens and its others natural resources.

In the far eastern corner of North East India there in Assam lies a small beautiful town called Digboi which is famous as the Birthplace of the Indian Oil Industry. The town is surrounded by the upper Dehing Reserve Forest. It can also be called the Gateway to South Eastern districts of Arunachal Pradesh.

The small town of Digboi is in the Tinsukia district of Assam, North Eastern corner region is the birthplace of the Oil Industry in India. Crude oil or liquid gold is considered to be discovered here in the late 19th century. It is nicknamed as the oil city of Assam where the first oil well in Asia was drilled. The first refinery was started here as early as 1901.

With a significant number of British Professionals working for Assam Oil Company until the decade following independence of India, Digboi had a well-developed infrastructure and a number of bungalows unique to the town. It has eighteen holes golf courses as part of the Digboi Club. It has Guest houses and tourist residential apartments laid on Italian architectural plan to promote tourism in Upper Assam. It was earlier owned and operated by Assam Oil Company (AOC) Limited and came into the folds of Indian Oil Company (IOC) Limited. The Logo of Assam Oil Division is the charging Red Rhino.

Barely seven years after Edwin L. Drake drilled the world’s first oil well in 1859 at Titusville, Pennsylvania, USA, history registered another exploration of the black liquid gold/crude oil in the largest continent, Asia. The earliest reference of oil found in Bible used in Egypt, Persia, India and Mesopotamia. In mid 19th century Scottish Chemist      Dr. James Young devised processing technique to produce lamp and heating oil from coal and oil shale and later came to be known as Paraffin oil. He was nicknamed as “Paraffin Young”. Edwin L Drake (also known as Colonel Drake) was the first American who successfully drilled for oil in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Claims of prior art exist – Poland in 1858, Wietze, Germany in 1857 and oil springs, Ontario, Canada, 1858. The importance of E.L Drake well at Titusillve was that it prompted the first great wave of investment and additional drilling that established petroleum as a major industry. E. L. Drake is known as father of the petroleum industry. But unluckly he was unable to patent his invention of oil drilling methods and technology and many people easily adopted his techniques without any credit to him.

More than a century, history was made in remote corner of Upper Assam in the midst of the dense and malaria infested jungles by a band of intrepid pioneers searching for black gold. In 1867 Italian Engineers, Commissioned by the Assam Railways and Trading Company to build a railway line from Dibrugarh to Maregherita accidentally discovewred oil at Digboi (Makum Pathar) around ten miles from Margherita. At the times of working with the oil drilling, the English Engineer shouted to the workers ‘Dig boy-dig’ again and again.

Later, the place got its name ‘Digboi’. As he watched his men who were working there and the elephants emerging out of the dense forest he found oil stains on the feet of the elephants. This is possibly the most distilled though fanciful-version of the legend explaining the sitting and naming of Digboi. Two events separated by seven years have became fused, but although neither is likely to be provable, such evidence that does exist appears, sufficiently detailed to be credible. In other view, the story goes like this:

“Engineers Extending the Dibru- Sadiya railway line to Ledo for the Assam Railways and Trading Company in 1882 were using elephants for haulage and notices that the mud on one Pachyderm’s feet smelled of oil”. Retracing the trail of footprints, they found oil seeping to the surface. One of the oil enthusiasts persuaded the company to drill a well. Once the project had been approved, Mr. Lake assembled equipments, local labours, and engaged elephants to haul the machinery to the site.

The first well was started in September 1889 but an encouraging first strike at 178 feet turned out to be a small pocket and drilling recommenced. This continued until November 1890 when the well was completed at a total depth of 662 feet and it was during this extended period of drilling that oil India;s old wedsite placed the legend of Mr. Lake exhorting one or more of his labourers to ‘Dig-boy.

India (and Asia) obtained its first refining in Digboi in the year 1901. The first organized marketing and petroleum products from the Digboi refinery commenced in January 1902. Assam Oil Company (AOC) was formed in 1899 after the running of the oil business in this area. The Digboi oil field produced close to 7000 barrels per day (1 barrel of oil = 42 Gallons inus of crude oil at its peak, which was during World War II.

The field was pushed to produce the maximum amount of oil with little regard to reservoir management as a result production started to drop almost immediately after the war. The production from the Digboi fields at present is about 240 barrels per day. Over 1000 well have been drilled at Digboi refinery – the first well in 1889. Though the production is not high Digboi has the distinction of being India’s oldest continuously producing oil field.

Assam oil Division has a marketing network of 351 retail outlets, 399: SKO/LDO agencies and 268 LPG distributorships. These facilities are supported by two terminals at Tinsukia and Lumding. It is making forays in the states of West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand, Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab.

Digboi is now Headquarter of Assam Oil Division of IOC Limited. The earliest record to the existence of oil in Upper Assam is in 1825. Leutinent R. Wilcox, Major A. White, Captain Francis, Captain P.S. Hanney – all say petroleum exuding from banks of Dihing River at different times. Mr. Bruce (1828) and Mr. Medicolt (1865) of Geological Survey of India (GSI) saw oil prospecting for coal in Upper Assam.

Mr. Goodenough was the first in India to start a programme of drilling for oil in 1866, at Nahorpung about 48km South-East of Digboi. This first oil well drilled upto 102 feet proved dry. However the second well struck oil at 118 feet at Makum (Parthar) near Margherita area of Upper Assam.

The Digboi Oil field, Assam Oil Division, under Indian Oil Company (IOC) Limited, has both refinery and marketing operations. The refinery at Digboi had an installed capacity of 0.5 MM TPA (Million metric tonnes per annum). In 1996, the capacity was increased to 0.65 MMTPA. A catalytic Reformer Unit (CRU) was installed and commissioned in 1997 for production of lead free petrol. A new delayed cooking unit of 170000 TPA Capacity was commissioned in 1999. A new Solvent Dewaxing Unit for maximizing production of micro crystalline was installed and commissioned in 2003. The Hydrotreater – UOP was installed in 2002 to improve the quality of diesel. Digboi refinery has adopted eco-friendly hyrofinishing technolgy for treatment of wax by installing a wax Hydeofinishiong Unit (WHFU) in 2001. The refinery is ISO-9002, ISO-14001, ISO-114064 and OHSAS accredited and follows TPM. It is now a fully modernized refinery with state-of the-art technolgy. The Digboi Refinery has been termed as Gangatri of Indian HydroCarbon section.

The refinery manufacturers of conventional petroleum products such as LPG, Motor Spirit, Mineral Turpentine Oil, Superior Kerosine Oil (SKO), High Speed Diesel (HSD), Light Diesel OIl (LDO), Furnace Oil, Bitumen, Raw Petroleum Coke, Paraffin Wax etc.

As a mark of celebration of hundred years of Digboi Refinery, an Oil Centenary Museum was set up at Digboi in January 2002. The famous well No. 1 of Digboi where it all began in 1889 is situated within the museum complex. In collabaration with the centenary celebrations and towards accomplishment of the Corporate Mission of preserving ecological balance and natural habitat, an Ecological Park named. The Digboi Centenary Park was developed near the Refinery (zero Km range)

Beyond its refinery world, it is a place for various tourists attracting spots. It includes the Oil Refinery site, Digboi Centenary Museum, Digboi Oil field, Centenary Park.       Above these, there is a War Cemetary located at the outskirts of Digboi. It was constructed by the Commonwealth War Grave Commission in honour of the War Heros of World War II. It also owned a golf course which is included in the 18 holes golf course in Assam, where major tournaments are hosted.

The refinery promotes environmental production and conservation of natural resources in an around Digboi in line wih the continued thrust for global environmental conciousness for making the Mother Earth suitable for living for our future generation and living kingdom. The Refinery has been totally revitalised itself to the continuing its service to the nation in the new Millenium. However, what remains unchallenged is the historic achievement of the Digboi Refinery in completing a grand 119 years of successful operations and the dedication and the steely determinations of those stalwarts who served in the past or are serving in various capacities who made this possible.

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