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With top advisory panel’s cautious nod, govt closer to approving oil drilling in forest areas

Forest Advisory Committee gives 'in principle' approval for drilling based on Directorate General of Hydrocarbons report, but says it’s contingent on Wildlife Institute’s sanction.

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New Delhi: The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has cautiously given ‘in principle’ approval for extended reach drilling (ERD) — a form of oil and gas extraction — in forest areas, contingent upon the Wildlife Institute of India’s sanction. 

ERD is a method of extraction that involves digging a horizontal well at an incline that is at least twice as long in its length as it is in depth, which allows for the drilling to take place at a distance from the site of extraction. 

In a meeting held on 31 March, the committee decided to give its ‘in principle’ approval for ERD based on a report by the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons, which proposes that drilling occurs at least 1 km outside a protected area, and half a kilometre away from villages in forest areas.

According to the minutes of the meeting accessed by ThePrint, the report said the technology posed “no direct impact” on fauna, but that “indirect” impact could include forest fires from oil leakages, soil surface contamination, and reproductive disorders. Its conclusion — that ERD is environmentally safe and the “best technology for tapping the hydrocarbon from beneath without disturbing the surface area” — included a recommendation by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education. 

The FAC said a “final” decision would be taken after the Wildlife Institute of India provides its views on the matter and specifically considers the effects on wildlife. 

“To ensure holistic assessment of impacts as envisaged in the report, findings of the report further need to be evaluated in terms of their impact on the wildlife,” read the minutes of the 31 March meeting, accessed by ThePrint.

“Accordingly, a copy of the report may be provided to the Wildlife Institute of India for their consideration and validation of the recommendation, with reference to wildlife,” the minutes added

Meanwhile, environmentalists have expressed concern over the ambiguity around the impact of EDR, and say that oil extraction in protected areas still poses serious environmental and health risks. 

On his part, S.P. Yadav, the additional director general of forests and a member of the FAC, told ThePrint that the committee would hear and address such concerns once a final decision is taken, but declined to comment any further.

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Push to allow drilling in forest areas

Those who want to undertake ERD in forest areas require permission from the ministry under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, which prohibits diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes without clearance from the central government.

If the FAC is to grant its “final” approval, it could result in exemptions to the clearance process outlined by the Forest (Conservation) Act in its current form, experts say.

In October last year, the ministry proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act, which included removing ERD from its purview saying the technology was “quite environment-friendly”. 

In the report submitted to the FAC, the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons — which comes under the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas — also argued that the Forest (Conservation) Act shouldn’t apply to ERD since it works “from outside forest areas” and “there would be minimal impact on surface forest area”.

Notably, the FAC had previously shown hesitation in granting ERD approval, saying its ecological effects needed to be deliberated further, but changed its mind after meeting with officials from the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons. 

The officials explained the “importance” of the technology and its potential to boost India’s crude oil production and demand, according to the minutes of the FAC meeting.  

The DG, Hydrocarbons, also argued that the extraction process would be a silent one, and any damage resulting from it would be “minimal” and last for “a limited period of six months only”. 

‘High risk’

However, geologists and other experts say that the risks of oil extraction within a forest area are still high, even if it is done from a distance.

“Long horizontal and inclined wells will disturb the aquifer systems and pollute the groundwater,” said Sreedhar Ramamurthi, managing trustee of Environics Trust and a geologist by training, adding that improper implementation can greatly increase the risks of oil leaks and fires.

For context, a blowout — an uncontrollable release of gas — at Oil India Limited’s (OIL) well at the Baghjan oil field in Assam’s Tinsukia in 2020 led to a fire that lasted for almost six months. The fire had a significant impact on the nearby Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and led to largescale evacuations.

OIL was granted environmental clearance for ERD in the same district in 2017, but this was stayed by the Gauhati High Court in the aftermath of the Tinsukia disaster when the company could not produce an impact assessment of ERD on the area’s biodiversity. The Ministry of Environment and Forest is yet to grant it forest clearance.

Ramamurthi claimed the directorate’s statement, that ERD will not affect flora or fauna because it is ‘silent’, is diversionary and hides its potential impact

“The fact that drilling will occur just a few kilometres away means there will be restrictions for wildlife,” Ramamurthi said.

Kanchi Kohli, a legal researcher with the Centre for Policy Research, said EDR could affect how local communities use the land at the proposed site for drilling and extraction.

“A cautious approach is necessary, and concerns about the effects of ERD need to be extended beyond wildlife,” she said. “People living in and around these areas and lands support local economies. Any restriction in their access to those areas, especially without any deliberation, could lend itself to conflict. Changes in land use often lead to restrictions. The implications of that also need to be factored in.”

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

Also Read: Wildlife Protection Amendment Bill 2021 misses the target despite good intentions


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