Govt weighs proposal to ease clearance norm for oil drilling
ERD is a technology for drilling longer horizontal wells at a high inclination angle to reach underground oil/natural gas deposits further away from the drilling spot, instead of drilling wells vertically.
The Union environment ministry is considering a proposal on whether extended reach drilling (ERD) in protected forest areas can be exempted from mandatory clearances under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, according to people aware of the matter and official government documents seen by HT.
To make a decision on the proposal, the environment ministry sought a report from the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons (DGH) on the impact of ERD technology, the people added.
ERD is a technology for drilling longer horizontal wells at a high inclination angle to reach underground oil/natural gas deposits further away from the drilling spot, instead of drilling wells vertically. The Union environment ministry gave the environmental clearance to OIL on May 11 for extension drilling and testing of hydrocarbons at seven locations under Dibru Saikhowa National Park but forest clearance for the project is pending. The DGH in their report has said there can be “indirect” impacts of such drilling like forest fires resulting from oil leakages; soil surface contamination etc. Environmental experts have said the ministry needs to have a very cautious approach considering that these regions have fragile ecology.
The people cited above said that the findings of DGH’s report on ERD -- submitted to the ministry by DGH through a letter dated December 31, 2021 -- were discussed in the ministry’s forest advisory committee’s (FAC) meeting on February 21. The minutes of FAC’s meeting, published last week, stated that “after thorough deliberation and discussion observed that the report needs more in-house deliberation at the MoEFCC (ministry of environment, forest and climate change) level prior to any decision being taken by FAC”.
“We have not taken a call. Several issues related to ERD need to be considered. The drilling in such cases may not affect the surface of the forest, but it is still a drilling activity. Forests have a very delicate balance. Will the drilling cause any noise or vibrations? Even these aspects cannot be ignored. All direct and indirect impacts of such drilling need to be understood to take a holistic view on the matter. So we have kept the decision in abeyance,” said a senior environment ministry official who asked not to be named.
An interim report on the matter was earlier discussed in an MoEFCC meeting on December 10, 2020 under the chairmanship of director general of forests, according to the minutes of FAC’s February 21meeting.
“After deliberating on the report, certain shortcomings were observed. The impact of such technology on forest and wildlife was not considered appropriately in the report. The chairman of the committee was advised to look into the concern of the ministry with regards to impacts on forest and to enhance its report with more scientific data,” the minutes added.
DGH submitted a revised report with inputs from Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) for further consideration of the environment ministry. A subcommittee of ICFRE visited operational sites in Upper Assam during September 27 to October 2, 2021.
The revised report said that no direct impact of the technology was observed on fauna. However, certain indirect impacts could happen -- like forest fires resulting from oil leakages, and pollutants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) causing reproductive effects, impacts of soil surface contamination, among others.
The report concluded that ERD is considered “environmentally safe and the best technology” for tapping the hydrocarbon from beneath without disturbing the surface area.
The minimum linear distance of drillingfrom the boundary on the ground for protected areas and wildlife corridors should not be less than 1km, and other forest areas recorded as protected forest, reserve forests or village forests should be at least 0.5km away, the report recommended.
“The depth of ERD and vertical wells can be similar at about 3500 to 4000 m but the main difference is that after drilling vertically in case of ERD a diversion is made at an angle to reach the location where oil is available. This is done so that you can reach areas that are difficult to reach. Because we are not able to reach say a forest area and vertical drilling isa not recommended inside the forest, ERD can be used,” a senior official of OIL explained.
“Having location of well at a depth of 500m and even deeper from the surface of the forest area has no impact on above ground forest biodiversity. In general, the rooting depth of forest species are limited to a maximum of around 60m depth. Thus, it will neither affect the root functioning nor root zone hydrology. It could be seen from the above narrative that ERD is scientifically designed, technically proven, and well-tested technologies adopted world over for reaching the hydrocarbon reservoirs from a larger distance to avoid the sensitive areas like forest, biodiversity hot spots, habitations, difficult terrain etc,” the report said, according to the minutes of the FAC meeting.
The DGH report also recommended that ERD projects need not to be considered under the purview of Forest Conservation Act, 1980 since no activity is undertaken directly in the forest area, and there would be minimal impact at the surface level due to activities carried out at a depth of 3,000m-4,000m.
Last October, the Centre released a consultation paper on amending the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, to bring significant changes to how forest land is managed in India -- a move that will facilitate private plantations and the extraction of oil and natural gas from deep beneath forest land by drilling holes from outside the forest areas.
The paper proposed to facilitate new technologies such as ERD for extraction of oil and natural gas found deep beneath the forest land by drilling holes from outside the forest areas. The paper suggested that this will not impact the soil or aquifer that supports the forest. “Ministry considers use of such technology is quite environment-friendly and as such should be kept outside the purview of FC Act,” the paper stated.
Experts said it is important that the government moves cautiously on new technologies.
“The environment ministry’s cautious approach on ERD technology in recorded forests and protected areas is a crucial process. The areas in question are not just sensitive ecologically, hydrologically, but have existing habitation and use rights, which will be affected if land areas are secured for oil extraction. This is particularly important as many oil-bearing states like Assam are in conflict, and companies have sought exemptions from public hearings citing the same. Since the ministry is aware of these tensions, they would need to inform the final decision rather than exclude it implications,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher, Centre for Policy Research. (CPR).