Assam gas field may have flouted green guidelines
Oil India Limited (OIL)’s gas well number 5 at Baghjan in Assam’s Tinsukia, where a blowout on May 27 triggered a continuing oil and gas leakage near the Maguri Motapung Wetland and Dibru Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve, was not assessed for its wildlife and biodiversity impact, according to Union environment ministry’s documents.
No wildlife clearance was obtained for wells in the region including well number 5, which is located barely a kilometre away from the Dibru Saikhowa National Park.
The wildlife and biodiversity impact of the wells were not studied for nearly a decade since the ministry granted them environmental clearance. Two environmental clearances were issued to OIL in 2011 years after it was granted the Baghjan petroleum mining lease in 2003. One related to the drilling of six exploratory wells in Tinsukia’s Mechaki area. The second clearance allowed drilling of 41 development and exploratory wells in north Hapjan, Tinsukia and Dhola.
The first environmental clearance letter dated November 2, 2011, seen by HT, was issued on the condition that no other wells apart from the six will be drilled. The other letter dated November 1, 2011, was meant for 41 wells located outside a 10 km radius of any national park, wildlife sanctuary or eco-sensitive area. The letters also stipulated conditions like installation of blowout preventers and an oil spillage and mitigation plan.
“The first 5 to 6 wells were drilled in 2003-2004 when even the Environment Impact Assessment notification, 2006, was not applicable. We started applying for some permissions after regulations were drafted and were granted ECs [environmental clearances] in 2011,” said OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika.
Baghjan is located at the confluence of the Siang, Dibang and Lohit rivers and is among the few remaining habitats for several endangered and range-restricted species.
The blowout led to the uncontrollable flow of oil from gas well number 5 and caused extensive damage to biodiversity and wildlife the region, which includes endangered hoolock gibbons and the Gangetic dolphins.
There are 17 oil and five gas wells in the Baghjan oil field. The field is located only 500 metres from the Maguri-Motapung wetland, which is a part of the eco-sensitive zone of Dibru Saikhowa National Park.
In a December 2006 ruling, the Supreme Court said all development or mining projects within a 10 km radius of a national park will require National Board for Wildlife’s (NBWL) clearance and assessment.
This judgement was ignored in case of Baghjan wells until the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) was declared for Dibru Saikhowa National Park, carefully excluding the wells. The ESZ was notified in January and extends up to 8.7 km from the park.
“Gas wells in the Baghjan block are located outside notified ESZ of Dibru Saikhowa National Park….,” the environment ministry said in response to HT’s queries onwhy the wildlife impact was not considered.
Mridupaban Phukon, a wildlife activist, said environmentalists have been demanding that the environmental and wildlife clearance granted to OIL gas wells in Baghjan be placed in the public domain. “We had also written to the Assam Pollution Control Board about this but have not received any response. We have doubts about whether all the wells have EC [environmental clearance]. How could the government allow such projects in an ecologically sensitive area without adequate checks?” Phukon asked.
“The area is seismically very active. I wonder if seismicity of the area was assessed. It also happens to be very close to a river and a national park. Any industrial activity of this scale would have an impact on both the river and forests. The landscape is a unique landscape of lowland forests. It is possibly one of its kind left in India. So all precautionary measures should have been taken,” said Qamar Qureshi, senior scientist at Wildlife Institute of India who along with his team is studying the impact of the oil spill and gas blowout on the region’s ecology.
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OIL insisted it had executed a disaster management plan immediately after the blowout. “For blowouts like this, evacuation of local populace to a safe place is the first priority. Water jacketing of the gas coming out by fire tender is also a priority... BOP [blowout preventer] is a standard safety device used in all our operations,” OIL said in response to HT’s questions.
Experts said cumulative impact of drilling in an ecologically fragile area was never assessed because OIL sought clearances in a piecemeal manner.
“The regulatory trajectory of OIL’s operations leaves several questions unanswered. The need for comprehensive wildlife approval back in 2011, exemptions from public hearings, a pipeline constructed without all approvals, compliance of environmental safeguards will all need to be examined while investigating the reasons that led to the leak and fire causing the insurmountable ecological and humanitarian impacts,” said Kanchi Kohli, a legal researcher at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.
Kohli added that in effect, gas exploration, extraction and transportation have been dealt with in a piecemeal manner and has been allowed to inch closer and closer to the national park.
OIL applied for an NBWL clearance in 2012 for the transfer of 114.267 ha of non-forest land falling within 10 km radius of the national park for laying of a crude oil pipeline beneath the wetland and another 304.15 ha for expansion of gas field development.
NBWL deputed its members Prerna Singh Bindra and MD Madhusudan for a site inspection after residents and non-governmental organisations accused OIL of violations. Their report highlighted that OIL had started pipeline construction even before it got approval from NBWL.
“We strongly disapprove of the current trend of presenting the NBWL with fait accompli situations and seeking post-facto clearances for projects on which work has already been undertaken without the requisite prior permissions. The expenditure thus incurred, in this case, from the public exchequer puts undue and unfair pressure on the NBWL to ratify violations of wildlife and environmental norms,” the report said.
The report recommended that OIL provide a legal undertaking about its environmental safeguards and specify the nature and extent of their liability in case of accidents involving oil spillage or gas leakage into the wetland.
The expert appraisal committee (EAC) of the environment ministry in meetings on December 30, 31, 2019 and January 1, 2020 recommended environmental clearance for drilling and testing of hydrocarbons at seven locations inside and under the national park.
According to the minutes of the EAC meetings, seen by HT, OIL had sought exemption from public hearings multiple times. The EAC agreed to exempt the project from public hearing but the environment ministry did not accept it.
EAC wrote to OIL on May 29, 2019 about resubmitting the proposal after conducting a fresh public hearing. A public hearing is mandatory for a project of this nature.
But according to the minutes, OIL again requested exemption from the public hearing, saying it had conducted one in Tinsukia in 2016. OIL submitted that there was widespread local opposition to drilling inside the park.
“It was informed that conducting a public hearing in the area is a big challenge and couldn’t be completed at times due to unruly acts by the local pressure groups. Due to vulnerability and blockade from local pressure groups production in these areas has been stopped,” according the minutes seen by HT.
The EAC cleared the project considering its “national importance” for energy security. The minutes say that every drop of oil production would significantly contribute towards meeting the vision of reducing oil imports by 10% by 2022.
Drilling of seven wells was expected to contribute 700,000 litres of oil daily and save Rs 450 crore annually spent on crude oil imports.
A Supreme Court judgement of April 2014 restricted any mining within a kilometre boundary of a protected area.
OIL filed a petition in 2015 saying it be exempted from the Supreme Court order because it pertained to the mining of minerals and not to drilling of oil wells.
OIL managed to get both the court and NBWL clearance on August 9, 2017.
Manju Menon, a senior fellow at Centre for Policy Research, who has been tracking this case, cited papers available and said it appears that OIL dodged the public hearing procedures for its expansion. “If a project that has been around for years cannot hold a public hearing, how do regulatory bodies that grant approval to such a project expect it to operate successfully in the midst of local communities? This expectation is totally misplaced when all they have done is to create conditions for conflict.”