Overturning its May 15 decision to “plug permanently” gas extraction wells falling within 1 km of a wildlife sanctuary, the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) cleared it on June 27 based on a legal opinion from the Environment ministry that drilling for oil and gas “is not covered under mining”.
Ruling on the Jamua Ramgarh (Sariska) mining case in 2006, the Supreme Court prohibited mining activities within 1 km of all wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. In the Oilfield (Regulation and Development) Act, 1948, “mine means any excavation for the purpose of searching for or obtaining mineral oils and includes an oil well”. The safety issues involved in oil extraction are regulated by the Director General of Mines Safety and the Oil Mines Regulations, 1984 made under the Mines Act, 1952.
Before Phase III of the Dirok gas field development project of the Hindustan Oil Exploration Company Ltd (HOECL) — it is in Tinsukia district of Assam — came up before the NBWL this year, the Environment ministry itself noted that “it is not clear how two appraisal wells were drilled within 1 km of the Protected Area by the user agency” since the permission given in 2015 was for drilling 1.5 km away from the Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary.
On May 15, while clearing Phase III of the project, the NBWL, in line with the 2006 order of the Supreme Court, stipulated that “wells within 1 km distance of the boundary of the sanctuary shall be plugged permanently and no oil/gas stalled be extracted from such wells”.
Following HOECL’s request to “review and remove the condition”, the ministry’s Impact Assessment (IA) division on June 21 wrote a note, arguing that while mining was listed under item 1(a) of the schedule of activities in the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2006, item 1(b) provided for oil and gas exploration, development and production.
Based on this note, the ministry’s Legal Monitoring Cell provided an opinion on June 23 that the 2006 Supreme Court judgment was “not applicable in the case under reference” as drilling for oil and gas wells is “not covered under mining.” It added that the IA division was at liberty to take the opinion of the Law ministry on the issue.
The Environment ministry, however, went ahead and placed the matter before the NBWL on June 27. Several members, it is learnt, questioned the merit of the ministry’s legal opinion at the meeting but eventually conceded that “they were experts in matters of conservation and not law”.
“After discussion,” stated minutes of the June 27 meeting released Friday, “the Standing Committee (of the NBWL) came to the conclusion that oil drilling activity is a separate activity from mining as per EIA notification and agreed to the waiver of the condition of plugging permanently the wells located within 1 km distance from the boundary of the sanctuary”.
Dr H S Singh, member of the NBWL standing committee, said while the board went by the ministry’s view that drilling could not be considered a mining activity, the “definition” remained open to scrutiny by legal authorities.
“This was discussed at length and I expressed my views which I cannot share outside. A decision was taken subject to the legal opinion of the ministry that oil and gas extraction is not mining. But the Law ministry may have a different view. People may even move court seeking an interpretation (of the judgment concerned),” Singh told The Indian Express.
Siddhanta Das, Director General and Special Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, and Soumitra Dasgupta, Inspector General (Wildlife), declined comment. The NBWL is a statutory body set up under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and serves as the apex body dealing with all wildlife-related matters and approval of projects in and around sanctuaries and national parks. While the board is headed by the Prime Minister, the Environment minister chairs the meetings of its standing committee.