NEW DELHI: For the second time in its history, India’s flagship oil and gas field, Mumbai High faced the prospect of being hived off to private entities but were spared from being put under the hammer after basic premise of the proposal was questioned by a section of the government.

Top government sources said a panel headed by Niti Ayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar had recently drawn up a blueprint to “transfer” nine major fields, which form the bulwark of India’s domestic oil and gas supplies, to domestic private and multinational energy entities.

Besides Mumbai high the list of fields included Heera, D-1, Vasai East and Panna in the western offshore, Greater Jorajan and Geleki in Assam, Baghewala in Rajasthan and Kalol in Gujarat. These fields together account for 95% of domestic production. The blueprint also envisaged auctioning another 149 marginal fields, accounting for 5% of domestic production, after clustering them with the big ones.

The blueprint was ostensibly aimed at raising domestic production and attracting investment. It was based on certain projections of production upside from these old and ageing fields. But once the plan was circulated for discussion in the government, the projections came into question as the panel could not back up the proposal with field logs and other geological data available with flagship explorer ONGC, which operates the field.

With no hard evidence to back up the projected potential of incremental increase in output from these fields, the panel in its January 29 report finally recommended giving state-run companies freedom to choose field-specific models, including farm-out, joint venture or technical service model for raising output.

This is the second escape from privatization for Mumbai High, discovered in 1974 by a Russian and Indian seismic exploration team. The field was being sold off to a private company in the early nineties but a whistleblower scuppered the plan.

ONGC has been facing a relentless push from a section of the government skeptical of the public sector to give up its producing fields as major private players have been dangling the lure of technology to get a pie of the cake instead of risking capital in discovering new fields. A major player had some time back taken out full-page ads to argue the same.

ONGC had thwarted a plan to sell 15 producing fields in late 2017, which also drew criticism from the Congress. ONGC executives say they can better the private sector in a level field where they get marketing and pricing freedom just like the former. They point out the continued production from ageing fields as a testimony to their capability. Pushing these fields beyond a limit for short-term gains will kill them, they say.

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