Three OIL exploration proposals up for consideration in Assam even as Baghjan smoulders

While clearance for Baghjan was opposed by locals during public hearings, such dissent will amount to nothing with the three proposed projects

By Rishika Pardikar
Published: Wednesday 01 July 2020
A blowout and subsequently, a massive fire happened at the Baghjan well owned by OIL India Ltd in May and June. Photo: @kapil_agarwal27 / Twitter

Three proposals for environmental clearance (EC) by Oil India Ltd (OIL) in Assam, including one in Tinsukia district, are up for consideration by the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA).

The proposal for oil and gas exploration in Tinsukia was submitted for EC on May 4, 2020. The next proposal for exploration — in Dibrugarh — was submitted on June 8. The third proposal for exploration in Dhemaji was submitted on June 19, 2020.

This, even as life in the area around OIL’s Baghjan oil field in Tinsukia district struugles to limp back to normalcy after a blowout or massive eruption on May 27 and a fire on June 9.

Two people have died in the incidents while the impact on the various flora and fauna that consider Maguri Motapung beel (wetland) and the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park their home is unaccounted as yet. 

No public hearing

Since January 16, 2020, all on- and offshore oil and gas exploration projects are being considered as ‘B2’ — a category that requires no public hearing under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006.

Effectively, this removes the requirement of public scrutiny for oil and gas exploration activities like digging exploration wells, building roads and other ancillary infrastructure, which have serious impacts on the local environment.

This is especially if the local environment includes areas like wetlands and protected areas like national parks like those in the vicinity of the Baghjan well.

Thus, while clearance for the Baghjan project was opposed by locals during public hearings, such dissent will amount to nothing with the three proposed projects. 

“It is important that public hearings are conducted at the exploration stage itself,” Kanchi Kohli, a researcher who works on environment, forest and biodiversity governance with the Centre for Policy Research, said. But the January 16, 2020 amendment changed precisely this.

Kohli explained that by the time the exploration activities are completed, there is a significant financial investment by project proponents that cannot be reversed.

“The problem arises when the extraction activity requires a public hearing and project proponents look to avoid it … exemptions from public hearings become a fait accompli,” Kohli added.

She noted a case in point was how OIL skipped public hearings for expansion of its drilling operations inside Assam’s Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and obtained environment clearance in May, 2020.

Minutes of the December 2019 meeting of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change show why the project was exempted from public hearings: “… due to the vulnerability of the area, the project will meet its death”; so, conducting such hearings was “practically impossible.”

Situations like this hint at existing conflicts which, if left unaddressed, can severely undermine environmental laws and, more importantly, jeopardise the ecological integrity of India’s last remaining natural habitats.

Earlier too, OIL had tried to evade public hearing processes for these seven locations. Minutes of the EAC meeting in February, 2017, show that OIL requested that “they may be allowed to use the earlier public hearing details” from the same district.

This shows that OIL has been apprehensive of public scrutiny and the blowout and subsequent fire at the Bhagjan oil well only proves that public opposition was justified.

With the change in the EIA notification though, public scrutiny for oil and gas as part of the formal environmental clearance processes stands undermined.

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