Environmentally, India's Hydrocarbon Sector Enjoys a Regulatory Free-for-all

An environmental clearance granted for exploration of shale oil and gas in some districts of Gujarat shows fracking operations are treated no differently than conventional methods for hydrocarbon exploration. This is imprudent.

In March and early April of 2019, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and Vedanta applied to the Union environment ministry for prior environmental clearances to survey for hydrocarbons and sink 314 exploratory wells in the onshore and offshore regions of the Cauvery basin in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.

A review of the applications, the standard terms of reference prescribed for conducting environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for such proposals and environmental clearances issued by the ministry reveals how oil and gas installations in India are operating in a regulatory vacuum.

Going by the environment ministry’s track record of appraising hydrocarbon projects, it seems likely that the use of controversial methods like hydraulic fracturing and seismic airgun surveys, which can devastate groundwater, fish and marine mammals, are going to be permitted in the Cauvery basin without assessing their impact. And given the hazardous nature of these activities, such under-regulated operations will only further endanger the environment and livelihoods of fisherfolk and farmers in the region.

The ministry has routinely exempted offshore drilling proposals from public hearing, arguing that such projects happen away from populated areas and will not impact communities. Vedanta has also requested such an exemption. However, the projects are not only offshore but also contemplate drilling and hydraulic fracturing on land in parts of Puducherry, Villupuram, Cuddalore, Karaikal and Nagapattinam.

Moreover, offshore operations can impact land-based communities by harming the fish stock and even certain fish species, and threatening the fisheries and coastline by increasing the risk of earthquakes and oil spills.

Seismic failures

The environment ministry’s EIA manual for exploration and production drilling for hydrocarbons requires the assessment of baseline data for fish and other biodiversity, including details about fishing zones and fish breeding areas. It suggests that the impact of seismic surveys and drilling in marine environments should be assessed.

According to the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification of 2011, coastal zone management plans are mandated to contain fishing zones and fish breeding areas. However, the ministry has approved incomplete plans for Tamil Nadu and Puducherry that don’t contain these details.

Neither the application documents submitted by Vedanta or ONGC nor the standard terms of reference routinely prescribed by the environment ministry makes any mention of the potential impact of seismic surveys. The environment clearance also prescribes no conditions designed to protect fish populations from the disruptive effect of seismic surveys. Finally, fishing activities, fish breeding zones and migratory corridors of marine animals are completely disregarded.

Offshore seismic surveys are conducted by ships that trail an array of airguns that explode underwater. Another trailing array of sensors pick up the reflected sound waves to decipher the nature of the rocky substrate, and identify hydrocarbon-bearing formations beneath the seabed.

In a seismic survey, explosions are triggered every 10 to 15 seconds and can continue round the clock for weeks on end. These explosions are among the loudest noises in the marine environment.

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The airgun blasts can harm fish populations, and empty entire stretches of the sea of fish as they are scared away to deeper waters. A study published in 2017 reported that the blasts increased mortality among adult and larval zooplankton by 2-3 times, with the effects seen up to 1.2 km away.

A press release by the study’s authors noted, “Zooplankton underpin the health and productivity of global marine ecosystems, and what this research has shown is that commercial seismic surveys could cause significant disruption to their population levels.”

Marine creatures like whales, dolphins and octopuses that use sound to communicate and navigate can also become disoriented, suffer hearing damage, become stressed, have their migratory patterns disrupted, even die.

Ocean Conservation Research, a non-profit research organisation, hosts a library of sea sounds on its website that demonstrates the disruptive effect airgun blasts can have in the pelagic soundscape. Listen first to the sounds made by various sea creatures, and then compare it to the deafening explosion of an underwater airgun.

Humpback whale:

Minke whale:

Bowhead whale:

Beluga whale:

Bearded seal:

Seismic airgun:

The waters off Villupuram, Puducherry and Nagapattinam are popular dolphin and whale haunts.

Vedanta claims in its application that the project areas don’t include the critical habitats of any endangered species. This is false. According to a report published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem project, this region has several species of threatened or protected whale, dolphin, seabird, turtle and shark, and includes the migratory corridors for the whale shark and the Olive Ridley sea turtles.

Unregulated fracking

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a controversial technique used to extract hydrocarbons. It requires large volumes of water and is associated with ground and surface water pollution and a heightened risk of quakes. The Indian regulatory regime does not require adequate disclosure of these risks to public, and fails to mandate any relevant impact assessment and management regime.

An environmental clearance granted for exploration of shale oil and gas in Mehsana, Gandhinagar, Ahmedabad, Kheda and Bharuch districts of Gujarat reveals how fracking operations are treated no differently than conventional methods for hydrocarbon exploration and production. No special requirements are prescribed for handling wastewater from fracking, for checking fracking-induced seismicity or to avoid water stress and conflicts due to freshwater scarcity.

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Hydrocarbon wells yield toxic and radioactive wastewater called produced water that has to be handled carefully. With fracking, the produced water is also contaminated with chemicals used in the fracking fluid. Indian regulations contain no special handling requirement for these chemicals.

Various estimates place the Cauvery basin’s total recoverable shale gas reserves at 4.5-9 trillion cubic feet. Exploration for shale gas and oil has already begun in nine blocks of Cauvery basin. These include the Kuthalam, Greater Bhuvanagiri, Greater Narimanam, Koothanallur, L-II, L-I, Greater Kali, Ramanathapuram and Kamalapuram sectors.

Hydrocarbon deposits in shale rock are difficult to assess because the oil or gas is held within tight rock formations that need to be fractured first allow the fluid to flow into the well. Mobilising these deposits for extraction involves energy- and water-intensive methods.

One of the them is fracking: pumping large quantities of water laced with various chemicals and a special sand called proppant into oil wells to fracture the rock and create channels for the hydrocarbon to flow through. The proppant, made of aluminium silicate, is used to keep the cracks open.

Fracking a single well can consume 5,000-15,000 m3 of water compared to 800-1,400 m3 for conventional hydrocarbon wells. Add to this the 15 m3 of fracking fluid and 50,000 m3 of proppant sand.

The fracking chemicals are toxic to humans and marine life. Nonylphenol ethoxylate can disrupt the development, growth, behaviour and survival of aquatic species. Methylisothiazolinone is neurotoxic and genotoxic. Other substances include compounds of boron, phenol formaldehyde resins, glyoxal and isotridecanol ethoxylate.

Vedanta’s pre-feasibility report states, “Fracturing effluent generated will be discharged in the HDPE lined pits at the drilling well sites. Additional land will be procured wherever required. For effective recycling and reuse of the frac fluid, effluent treatment plant will be installed, thus raw water required for fracturing will be minimised.”

Such casual handling of highly contaminated wastewater in a region surrounded by productive agricultural fields is fraught with problems.

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The project proposals also include the possibility of offshore fracking. However, no review of the impact has been proposed or has been included in the standard terms of reference prescribed for such projects by the environment ministry.

A similar lapse by the US government in permitting fracking in California’s coastal waters was successfully challenged by the state of California. The latter argued that the government had failed to consider the impact of offshore fracking on marine endangered species. In November 2018, a US court ordered the Trump administration to stop permitting fracking off California’s coastal waters.

Fracking generates millions of litres of toxic produced water, and Vedanta’s proposal to “discharge” it in open-lined pits onsite is unviable and dangerous. Equally dangerous is the controversial alternative to this practice, which involves injecting these effluents into deep wells in the neighbourhood. Such underground injection of wastewater can trigger earthquakes that in turn can endanger property and lives.

Geologists from the National Institute of Oceanography reported in 2010 that “coastal seismicity due to the reactivation of the pre-existing tectonic lineaments extending offshore represents a potential natural hazard”, particularly in the Puducherry area.

Baseline blunders

Despite the adopting “best practices”, hydrocarbon extraction remains a dirty activity. Groundwater in the vicinity of hydrocarbon wells and well-sites where produced wastewater is injected tend to become flush with metals such as sodium, magnesium, barium and strontium, and hydrocarbons like toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and benzene.

The generation of a representative baseline of water quality around each well site and systematic monitoring of the groundwater is imperative for early detection of well-induced contamination, and for pursuing any future claims for liability or restoration of groundwater.

Companies like Vedanta are particularly notorious for evading liability. In Thoothukudi, where Vedanta’s Sterlite copper smelter is being blamed for contaminating groundwater with toxic metals, the company has claimed there is insufficient data to establish that contamination has increased above the baseline.

In the Cauvery basin, Vedanta has proposed and will likely get away with a baseline data generation regime that is inadequate and flawed. It proposes to sink 158 wells in Nagapattinam and Karaikal. Of these, at least 20 will be on land and spread over 181 sq. km. Ideally, baseline data ought to be generated from at least 8-10 locations around each proposed hydrocarbon well. However, Vedanta proposes to take samples from a total of only eight locations spread over the entire 181 km2. That’s one groundwater sample for ever 23 km2. No samples are proposed to be taken from offshore locations.

Any regulation is only as good as its enforcement, and for hydrocarbon activities, it is a regulatory free-for-all.

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According to one report prepared by members of Cauvery Delta Watch (including this author) using information in the public domain and RTI applications, where ONGC claims to have dug 700 wells in the districts of Cuddalore, Ariyalur, Nagapattinam, Thiruvarur, Thanjavur, Pudukottai and Ramanathapuram, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) only has records for 219. Similarly, while ONGC claims to have 183 wells in production, TNPCB only has records for 71. And none of the wells has a valid ‘consent to operate’ under the Air and Water Acts.

In fact, even if they wanted to, the state pollution control boards of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry can’t monitor the activities or enforce the law because  they aren’t equipped to do so.

The TNPCB claims it inspects ‘red category’ industries, such as exploration or production wells, once every three or four months and takes samples from these installations once every month or three months. But with offshore locations – such as 138 wells that Vedanta plans to drill in the Bay of Bengal – the TNPCB will have to rely on Vedanta’s good intentions. The board doesn’t have the means to travel to sea to inspect or collect samples. And even if the board was interested in preventing violations, it can’t possibly detect the illegal dumping of hazardous wastes or untreated effluents in the sea.

In all the hydrocarbon sector exposes the sham that is environmental governance in India.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist.