Oil, gas extraction in forest not mining: Wildlife board
Oil and natural gas extraction in forest areas and wildlife sanctuaries is not “mining”, said the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) with regard to the proposals for six projects in Trishna Wildlife Sanctuary in Tripura. However, experts raised concerns over the move and termed it a “complete contradiction in the ministry of mines’ position”.
In a meeting on January 10, 2019, the NBWL, the apex body on wildlife, tentatively recommended six proposals for diversion of forest land from Trishna Wildlife Sanctuary in Tripura subject to the condition that Tripura government obtains a legal opinion from the state advocate general on whether oil and gas extraction can be categorised as mining activity.
Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) also sought the Solicitor General of India’s view on the matter and asked whether a Supreme Court order dated August 4, 2006 in the TN Godavarman Vs Union of India and others case, which says temporary working permissions for mining cannot be granted inside any National Park or Sanctuary notified under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972) also applies to oil and gas extraction.
However, according to minutes of NBWL meeting held on September 24 and uploaded on environment ministry’s Parivesh website this week, the advocate general of Tripura has observed that extraction of natural gas/oil is not a mining activity under the provisions of Mines and Minerals (Development & Regulation) Act, 1957 while Solicitor General of India has opined that extraction of natural gas and oil (which includes exploration and development) is not a mining activity when compared to a traditional open cast mining carried out upon large tracts of land and it cannot be considered as mining in terms of SC’s 2006 order.
In NBWL’s September 24 meeting, the standing committee of NBWL has approved all six extraction projects in Tripura.
Experts pointed out that NBWL’s latest decision could have far-reaching implications.
“This is yet another instance of regulation by exemption. Even though the interpretation in NBWL minutes is in the context of a Supreme Court order dealing with temporary working permits (TWP) for mining, it raises some fundamental questions around oil and natural gas extraction not being a mining activity in general. This is in complete contradiction of the ministry of mines position which considers natural gas and petroleum as minerals to be regulated through mining laws. In fact, the ministry’s own forest advisory committee has referred to these sectors as being bound by the 1957 mineral legislation,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research.
The Mines and Minerals Act 1957 regulates the mining sector and covers mineral oils including petroleum and natural gas.
“The central government’s interpretation also should be read and analysed in conjunction with decisions to exempt oil and gas exploration from public hearings in 2020 or compensatory measures against forest diversions in 2021. The most recent proposal from the environment ministry is part of the draft amendments to the forest conservation act. It seeks to free specific kinds all survey and investigation and specific technological applications of oil and natural gas from the requirement of prior central government approvals,” added Kanchi.
In another matter related to oil and gas exploration in forest areas, the ministry of mines has sought exemptions on compensatory afforestation norms according to minutes of the Forest Advisory Committee’s meeting on September 17. The minutes suggest that the ministry of mines had written to the environment ministry on May 18,2021 requesting that the norm of planting 110 trees per borehole in case of mineral exploration projects be relaxed to 20 trees per borehole.
“The Ministry of Mines has constantly maintained the view that mineral exploration is only a temporary scientific activity in the forest area with little or no change in land use. Whatever little changes occur due to exploration in forest areas is restored back by nature within a few months. Therefore, exploration, which is a scientific activity by which possibility of existence of natural resources within a land parcel is evaluated, should not be equated with mining activity,” the letter from mines ministry states adding that “it appears that the revision in requirement towards compensatory afforestation from 20 tall trees per borehole to 110 trees per borehole in case of mineral exploration projects, where no felling of trees is involved, is very high. I would request that the FAC may consider the matter and the earlier requirement of planting 20 tall trees per borehole may be restored.”
The FAC declined the request stating that detailed guidelines have been issued by the ministry based on impact of the activity.