Oil and natural gas extraction is not ‘mining’, says Panel for Wildlife Conservation


New Delhi: A wildlife conservation organization under the government of Narendra Modi exempted oil and gas extraction from the definition of “mining” activity, paving the way for widespread exploitation of hydrocarbons in and around some of the densest forests in India which are also extremely rich with flora and fauna. The move, which is part of a series of environmental regulatory reforms vis-à-vis the hydrocarbon sector, will potentially benefit the bigwigs in the oil and gas industry.

At a meeting – details of which were released on October 8 – the National Wildlife Board (NBWL) Standing Committee provided the latest authorisation to six proposals to divert forest land from the Trishna Wildlife Sanctuary in Tripura after deciding that oil extraction cannot be considered “mining” activity.

The exemption was granted after senior justice officials in the country, including Tripura’s Advocate General and India’s Solicitor General, respectively, felt that oil extraction could not be interpreted as a “mining exploitation” within the framework of mines and minerals (development and regulation). Law of 1957 – known as the MMDR law – or under a 2006 Supreme Court order that banned mining near protected areas.

“What has been conveniently ignored when exempting oil and gas extraction from the definition of mining activities is the Mining Law of 1952. This law defines petroleum extraction as a mining activity.” said environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta. NewsClick.

The 1952 Mining Act, which NBWL allegedly ignored in making its decision, defines mining as “any excavation where an operation to search for or obtain minerals has been or is in progress and includes all the drilling, boreholes, oil wells and ancillary crude-conditioning plants, including the pipe carrying the oil mineral in oil fields ”.

According to the minutes of the NBWL standing committee meeting, the Solicitor General of India considered that the extraction of natural gas and petroleum, which includes exploration and development, is “not a business. mining versus traditional surface mining carried out over a large expanse of land ”.

The Solicitor General further added that oil and gas exploration could not be considered mining within the meaning of the Supreme Court order issued in August 2006 in the famous Godavarman Thirumulpad case according to which mining activities had been prohibited, provisionally, within a radius of 1 km from all protected areas, including national parks, wildlife reserves and forests.

“The spirit of the Supreme Court order of August 2006 was not taken into account to exempt the extraction of hydrocarbons from the definition of mining. By banning mining activities within a 1 km radius of protected areas, the decree aims to create a safety zone or buffer zone in which no disturbance should take place for the benefit of wildlife and ecology.

The Baghjan oil well explosion, which took place last year, is a case in point. The oil well is located at a distance of less than 1 km outside the boundaries of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park, a protected area, where most of the damage has taken place, ”added Dutta, whose organization LIFE (Legal Initiative for the Forest and the Environment), has been selected for the Right Livelihood Award 2021.

The Supreme Court has trained an expert Committee to analyze, among other things, any breaches, if any, of the authorization of the large state-owned company Oil India Limited to extract hydrocarbons very close to the Dibru Saikhowa National Park in Baghjan, Assam. Therefore, NBWL’s decision to facilitate oil and natural gas extraction activities near protected areas by removing it from the definition of mining was also characterized as premature.

Despite the devastation caused by the Baghjan eruption in the ecologically fragile rainforests of Assam, which also resulted in shift and the loss of the livelihoods of a large number of local communities, the Modi government has recently made efforts to relax environmental standards for the exploitation of hydrocarbons.

In January 2020, before the eruption of Baghjan, the Modi government had exempt oil and gas exploration activities by conducting public hearings, carrying out environmental impact studies and obtaining environmental authorizations from the Union’s Ministry of the Environment, Forests and Climate Change.

In May 2020, shortly before the eruption of Baghjan, the Union’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change had erased Oil India Limited (OIL) proposal for seven exploration wells outside Dibru Saikhowa National Park without a biodiversity impact assessment. In August 2020, even as the Baghjan eruption fire was still raging, a public interest dispute was filed in the Gauhati High Court alleging that the Modi government had exempted the aforementioned project from authorization. environmental impact in a “retrospective” manner.

Earlier this month, the Modi government sought to exempt hydrocarbon exploitation from the scope of forest clearing through a project amendment of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, whenever undertaken with the assistance of Extended Reach Drilling (DER) Technology.

It has been argued that these reforms, which can benefit oil companies, will also lead to irreversible environmental devastation.

At the same time, NBWL’s legal competence was also called into question by exempting the extraction of oil and natural gas from the definition of mining. Only the central government is empowered to exempt any activity of the 1952 Mining Act, which was put in place for the regulation of work and safety in mines.

“Where was the doctrine of proportionality, according to which the administrative action is legitimately expected to have a reasonable relation to the general purpose for which the power was conferred when the wildlife council exempted the extraction?” of hydrocarbons from the definition of mining? It seems that the aspects of environmental and ecological conservation, the objective for which the board of directors was first constituted, were not taken into account in arriving at this decision ”, said Debajit Das, lawyer. environment based in Gauhati.

In January 2019, NBWL provided conditions authorisation to the large public sector company Oil & Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) for diverting forest land from the Trishna Wildlife Sanctuary in Tripura for its hydrocarbon mining project. The proposed construction activities for the Trishna gas project included the drilling site, garbage pit, gas transport pipelines and access roads against which ONGC had requested wildlife clearance for six different plots of land. forest.

NBWL had approved all six proposals, but with a set of conditions intended for environmental mitigation. The NBWL had also ruled:

“The state government [Tripura] must obtain a legal opinion from the Advocate General on the fact that the extraction of natural gas / oil cannot be considered as mining under the terms of the order of the Supreme Court of 4.8.2006 in IA-1000 in WPC-202/1995 (Godavarman vs Union of India). The Ministry [Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas] will also have to seek legal advice from the Solicitor General of India on similar lines.

According to experts, a buffer zone or safety zone even outside protected areas, where commercial activities, including mining, are prohibited, helps prevent human-animal conflict as it is impossible to restrict the movement of wild animals within man-made boundaries of parks and sanctuaries.

Another example is Kaziranga National Park. A committee of experts formed by the government of Assam had advised the delimitation of nine corridors, beyond the limits of Kaziranga National Park, to allow the free back and forth movement of wild animals towards the neighboring hills of Karbi Anglong.

Residents of Kaziranga National Park – including tigers, elephants and rhinos – migrate to the hills of Karbi Anglong during the annual floods in order to seek refuge. However, their movements are hampered by the national road (NH) 37, which splits the park into two zones, and the commercial activities adjacent to the road.

Following a Supreme Court order in April 2019, the government of Assam also imposed a to prohibit on all mining activities in the immediate vicinity of Kaziranga National Park in order to promote the free movement of wild animals. The government of Assam issued the following statement on April 30, 2019:

“It is hereby ordered that all types of mining and related activities along the southern boundary of PNK [Kaziranga National Park] and throughout the watershed rivers, streams and streams flowing from the Karbi Anglong hill ranges and flowing into the PNK is immediately banned.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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