Government assesses proposal to relax clearance standard for oil drilling in protected forest areas | Latest India News

New Delhi: The Union Environment Department is considering a proposal to determine whether long-range drilling (ERD) in protected forest areas can be exempted from permits required under the Forest Conservation Act 1980, according to people familiar with the matter and official government documents seen by HT.

To make a decision on the proposal, the Environment Ministry has requested a report from the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons (DGH) on the impact of DRE technology, the sources added.

DRE is a technology for drilling longer horizontal wells at a high dip angle to reach underground oil/natural gas deposits farther from the drilling point, instead of drilling wells vertically. The Union Ministry of Environment gave environmental clearance to OIL on May 11 for expansion drilling and hydrocarbon testing at seven locations in Dibru Saikhowa National Park, but clearing for the project is on hold. The DGH in its report said there may be “indirect” impacts from such drilling, such as wildfires resulting from oil leaks; soil surface contamination, etc. Environmental experts said the ministry needed to take a very cautious approach given that these areas have fragile ecology.

The people quoted above said that the conclusions of the DGH report on the DRE — submitted to the ministry by the DGH through a letter dated December 31, 2021 — were discussed during the meeting of the Forestry Advisory Committee (CCF ) from the ministry on February 21. The FAC meeting, published last week, said that “after extensive deliberations and discussions, it was observed that the report requires further internal deliberations at the MoEFCC (Ministry of Environment, Forests and climate change) before any decision is made by the FAC”.

“We did not take an appeal. There are several issues related to ERD that need to be considered. Drilling in such cases may not affect the surface of the forest, but it is still an activity of drilling. Forests have a very delicate balance. Will the drilling cause noise or vibration? Even these aspects cannot be ignored. All the direct and indirect impacts of these drillings must be understood to have a complete vision of the question. So we left the decision in abeyance,” said a senior Environment Ministry official who asked not to be named.

An interim report on the matter was already discussed at a MoEFCC meeting on December 10, 2020 under the chairmanship of the Chief Forestry Officer, according to the minutes of the February 21 FAC meeting.

“After deliberating on the report, some shortcomings were noted. The impact of these technologies on forests and wildlife has not been properly considered in the report. The chairman of the committee was advised to consider the ministry’s concerns about impacts on forests and to enrich his report with more scientific data,” the minutes add.

The DGH submitted a revised report with inputs from the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) for further review by the Ministry of Environment. An ICFRE sub-committee visited operational sites in Upper Assam from September 27 to October 2, 2021.

The revised report indicates that no direct impacts of the technology have been observed on wildlife. However, some indirect impacts could occur – such as forest fires resulting from oil spills and pollutants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) causing reproductive effects, impacts from soil surface contamination, among others.

The report concluded that DRE is considered “environmentally safe and the best technology” for mining hydrocarbon from below without disturbing the surface.

The minimum linear distance of drilling from the ground boundary for protected areas and wildlife corridors should not be less than 1 km, and other forest areas registered as protected forest, reserve forests or village forests should be at least 1 km apart. minus 0.5 km, recommends the report.

“The depth of ERD and vertical wells can be similar at around 3500 to 4000 m, but the main difference is that after vertical drilling in case of ERD, a diversion is made at an angle to reach where the oil is available. This is done so that you can reach hard to reach areas. Because we are not able to reach, for example, a forest area and vertical drilling is not recommended inside forest, DRE can be used,” explained a senior OIL official.

“The location of a well at a depth of 500 m and even deeper from the surface of the forest area has no impact on forest biodiversity above ground. In general, the rooting depth of forest species is limited to a maximum of about 60 m deep. Thus, it will not affect root functioning or the hydrology of the root zone. It is apparent from the above narrative that DRE is a scientifically designed, technically proven and well-tested technology adopted worldwide to reach hydrocarbon reservoirs at a greater distance to avoid sensitive areas like forest, biodiversity hotspots, dwellings, difficult terrain. etc,” the report reads, according to the minutes of the FAC meeting.

The DGH report also recommended that DRE projects should not be considered under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 since no activities are undertaken directly in the forest area and there would be minimal impact at the surface level due to activities at a higher level. depth from 3000 m to 4000 m.

Last October, the Center released a consultation paper on amending the Forest Conservation Act 1980 to bring about significant changes to the management of forest land in India – a measure that will facilitate private plantations and extraction of oil and natural gas from deep forest lands by drilling holes from outside forest areas.

The document proposed to facilitate new technologies such as DRE for the extraction of oil and natural gas found deep under forest land by drilling holes outside of forest areas. The document suggests that this will not impact the soil or aquifer that supports the forest. “The department considers the use of such technology to be quite environmentally friendly and as such should remain outside the scope of FC law,” the document states.

Experts said it was important for the government to act cautiously on new technologies.

“The Ministry of Environment’s cautious approach to DRE technology in registered forests and protected areas is a crucial process. The areas in question are not only ecologically and hydrologically sensitive, 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 states like Assam are in conflict and companies have requested exemptions from public hearings citing the same. Since the department is aware of these tensions, it should inform the final decision rather than rule out its implications,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the Center for Policy Research. (CPR).

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