In March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking at an event in Delhi, set an extremely difficult challenge for the country’s oil and gas companies and the people who devise policies for them. The challenge was to cut down India’s oil imports by 10% from the current figure of 77% before the years 2022, and to bridge this gap with an increase in domestic production.

The prime minister’s advertised goal left industry experts confounded particularly since the ground realities of crude oil in India don’t augur well. Barely a few weeks after Modi’s speech, Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan declared that the days of extracting “easy oil” from the country’s biggest oil fields, Bombay High, are “nearing end”. The last major oil discovery was in Rajasthan by Cairn India nearly 11 years ago, and since then local black gold has been scarce.

Despite this disappointing history, work has already begun to study and design ways that could boost domestic oil production. Part of this blueprint includes Jammu and Kashmir, which is thought to have significant reserves of oil and natural gas. Special attention is being placed on the Riasi and Poonch regions on the banks of River Chenab near the Line of Control.

According to Sunil Kumar Srivastava, former chief of Indian Directorate General of Hydrocarbons and current CEO of Oil India, the region of Ladakh too could hold substantial hydrocarbon reserves. Last month, he announced that along with North East India, potential for oil and gas in Kashmir, specifically Ladakh, is being looked at with some seriousness now.

Ideas from the past

What really lies beneath these places will eventually be decided by fresh geological surveys aided by new technologies. But surveys in the past have given some idea.

The Geological Survey of India, established in 1851, had conducted extended surveys in the Himalayan region, with the first one being done in 1864 by Irish geologist Henry Benedict Medlicott. Further surveys in Kashmir were conducted in 1883, 1928 and 1934, before the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation took over following its inception in 1956.

Past studies have indicated potentially big oil and gas reserves in an area of around 100km near Bhimbargali-Naushera, around Poonch district. However, apart from that, most of the topographic, land and engineering surveys have been conducted in the foothills of the Himalayas, predominantly in Himachal Pradesh and stretching into the plains of Punjab. Even then, in the follow-up, nothing more than some basic drilling has taken place as yet.

Geopolitical challenges

To support the aim of decreasing the country’s reliance on imported oil, Indian state oil companies such as the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation have received more financial teeth to expand into the exploration sector. According to reports in February 2014 that quoted unnamed ONGC officials, its surveying work in the Kashmir region was hampered in the past due to border tensions along the Line of Control. So it plans to undertake such activities in future with the help of the Indian Army.

The same report also suggested that Pakistan had drilled “50 wells” in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and discovered lots of oil. However, analysts from Pakistan contested these claims, saying that only two wells were drilled and both did not provide significant production.

A renewed exploration push into regions such as Jammu and Kashmir would raise challenges both environmental and geopolitical. For sake of discussion, even if a discovery is made in Poonch district, it would mostly likely be a basin crossing beneath the Line of Control into Pakistan. A similar situation could arise in Ladakh too if hydrocarbon exploration is pursued there since large swathes of the region, known as Aksai Chin, remain under Chinese control.

Any oil discovery here could add layers of challenges in a region already facing extreme social, political and military complexities. An example of the potential cross-LoC interests is MOL. A Hungarian oil and gas company, its operations in Pakistan found some success in challenging terrains in Pakistan’s mountainous north. And in May 2008, the company also picked up a 35% stake in ONGC’s exploration block HF-ONN-2001/1 in the Himalayan foothills.

For now, exploration in the Poonch district is still in infancy and has not gone into high-cost investments. Ladakh, meanwhile, is just an idea on the horizon. However, a greater push for an increase in domestic production of oil and gas, amidst depleting reserves in traditional oil fields, is going to challenge Indian companies to explore uncharted and risky areas. Jammu and Kashmir and wider Himalayan region is now expected to figure significantly in such a push.