New Delhi: Questions are being raised over the Narendra Modi-led central government providing green clearance for hydrocarbon exploration in Assam’s rainforests before a Biodiversity Impact Assessment Study was conducted, as mandated by a Supreme Court order. Now, the Gauhati High Court has held in abeyance the environmental clearance granted by the central government to Oil India Limited (OIL) for drilling seven new exploratory oil wells in Assam.
The public sector hydrocarbon major was granted clearance for the project on May 11, 2020, despite skipping the Biodiversity Impact Assessment Study, which had earlier been made mandatory for it by the Supreme Court. The project to explore presence of hydrocarbons under the ecologically sensitive Dibru-Saikhowa National Park will be conducted through extended reach drilling (ERD) technology at seven locations outside the perimeters of the protected area that falls in Tinsukia district.
A division bench of Gauhati High Court, comprising acting Chief Justice N Kotiswar Singh and Justice Manish Choudhury, issued the abeyance order while hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed against the hydrocarbon firm.
“In the said order, the Hon’ble Supreme Court had made it specifically clear that Oil India Limited (OIL) will be bound by the undertaking given on 25.07.2017 under which the OIL will carry out Biodiversity Impact Assessment Study through Assam State Biodiversity Board for which budgetary offer had already obtained on 12.05.2017 for starting any drilling activity … till such exercise is completed by the Assam State Biodiversity Board clearing any such activity, the Environmental Clearance issued on 11.05.2020 may not be given effect for Extension Drilling and Testing of Hydrocarbons at 7 (seven) locations by OIL under Dibru Saikhowa National Park area, Tinsukia,” the high court bench directed on December 7.
It has been alleged by the petitioners that environment clearance for the project was granted by the central government in violation of the above-mentioned Supreme Court order.
The project has been in the pipeline since 2016. The public sector major had provided an undertaking on July 25, 2017, that it will carry out a Biodiversity Impact Assessment Study through the Assam State Biodiversity Board before undertaking the project to explore hydrocarbons at a depth of nearly 4,000 feet below the national park. It was on the basis of this commitment, amongst others, that the proposal to carry out exploratory activities under a protected area was accepted on July 29, 2017, by the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wild Life (NBWL). On September 7, 2017, the Supreme Court issued an order in an interlocutory application whereby OIL was allowed to carry out exploratory activities only if it remained bound to its own undertaking.
However, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) headed by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Prakash Javadekar granted the environmental clearance to OIL on May 11 this year in the midst of the nationwide total lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19. The clearance was granted without the impact assessment study being conducted, barely a few days before the Baghjan gas leak incident took place on May 27.
“This is a classic case of placing the cart before the horse. The environmental clearance has been granted earlier. The biodiversity impact assessment study will be conducted later,” said lawyer Debajit Das, counsel for the petitioners.
However, OIL also informed the high court that the process for conducting the impact assessment study has already begun.
As per OIL officials, conducting the mandatory Biodiversity Impact Assessment Study is one of the terms set upon it by the Union Environment Ministry in granting prior environment clearance for the project.
“Conducting the Biodiversity Impact Assessment Study is one of the terms of the environment clearance and we are absolutely committed to it. We are already in discussions with the state biodiversity board for the purpose. As of now, only seven locations have been tentatively selected by OIL for drilling the exploratory wells. The project will commence only when we begin procuring land and issue tenders for selecting an agency with international exposure in using ERD technology. We stand committed to conducting the study before the project commences,” OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika told Newsclick.
A questionnaire has been emailed to the MoEF&CC with a query, amongst others, as to why conducting a Biodiversity Impact Assessment Study was not imposed as a pre-condition upon the OIL for obtaining environment clearance. The email is yet to elicit any response. The article will be updated as and when the ministry responds to the email.
“It is immaterial to grant environmental clearance without taking into account the findings of the Biological Impact Assessment Study. Without considering the findings of the study, how can you grant an environmental clearance?” said Odisha-based environmental and wildlife activist Biswajit Mohanty when asked about the sequence of events in granting the environmental clearance and then conducting a Biodiversity Impact Assessment Study.
The fire at the OIL-operated Baghjan oil well, which raged continuously for several months, resulted in loss of lives, largescale displacement and extensive damages to the ecology of the fragile rainforests of rainforests around the Dibru Saikhowa National Park. A study conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India to assess the scale of damages from the Baghjan fire recommended that “it would be not only prudent but also essential for the well-being of all life forms” if approved new wells and explorations in this area are initiated only after a thorough investigation of potential impact, as well as evaluating disaster handling capabilities in place, with appropriate technology and trained manpower.
In August, a PIL had been filed in Gauhati High Court against the extension drilling project in the backdrop of the Baghjan oil well fire disaster. It had been alleged in the PIL that even though this particular project has been in the pipeline since 2016, the hydrocarbon firm bypassed the crucial ‘public consultation’ process on the basis of an amendment that was made to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006, as late as in January 2020.