Petitions against clearances given to two oil and gas exploration projects in northern Assam’s Tinsukia district, currently being heard at the National Green Tribunal, underline the importance of public hearings in the environmental appraisal of high-risk ventures. Exempting companies from these hearings could lead to bad project decisions with insufficient contingency measures to deal with accidents and emergencies, experts say.

Public hearings, a platform where local residents express their views on projects that impact lives and livelihoods, were mandatory for all oil and gas exploration and development projects till January, under the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2006. A few specific exemptions were allowed for small mining and industrial activities.

However, in January, in response to requests from oil and gas companies, the environment ministry amended the notification to exempt all oil and gas exploration projects, onshore and offshore, from public consultations. The ministry also proposed the same exemption in the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2020 published for public comments in March, which is under consideration by the ministry.

Since the January amendment, 14 applications for environmental clearance have been filed for onshore and offshore oil and gas exploration – nine in Assam, and one each in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, according to an IndiaSpend review such applications on the Environmental Clearance webpage of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. Of these, seven applications are from the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd, three from Oil India Limited, three from Vedanta and one from Adani Welspun Exploration Limited. (See below list of proposals pending with various State Environmental Impact Assessment Authorities).

A view of the fire at the field in Assam's Tinsukia. Photo credit: PTI

None of these projects will now need to conduct public consultations. Why is this causing consternation among environmental activists and citizen groups? Experts have pointed out that the disaster risks of oil and gas projects often tend to be underestimated: The blowout in oil well number 5 in Baghjan on May 27 and the subsequent fire on June 9 impacted over 3,500 families. The disaster also destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of farmers and fisherpeople.

“When public hearings are not conducted, people who are likely to be affected from such disasters are kept in the dark about the risks associated [with projects],” said Krithika A Dinesh, an environmental lawyer based in Kerala. “It impacts the contingency measures as well.”

The National Green Tribunal petitions had been filed in July and August challenging the environment ministry’s clearance for two Oil India Limited projects in Baghjan and Mechaki, also in Tinsukia district. The NGT, hearing one of the petitions on July 20, directed the environment ministry and the Assam State Pollution Control Board to submit a report on these contentions.

These projects are located in the hydrocarbon-rich Assam-Arakan Basin where the population density is 350 per sq km compared to the national average of 382 per sq km. Among other contentions, the petitions challenged the recommendation of the ministry’s expert appraisal committee to allow the projects to bypass public hearings.

Public hearings help fill the gaps in preparedness for accidents like the Baghjan blowout, argued Niranta Gohain, an environmental activist who lives in Natun Gaon, 2 km from Baghjan. “The record of a public hearing with our anxieties and grievances and the company’s promises mentioned in it becomes useful evidence in the event of lapses in safety measures or if the company backtracks on its promises,” he said. This helps fix accountability, especially in the case of accidents that lead to court cases.

Residents and activists told IndiaSpend that often public hearings are under-publicised and relevant environmental appraisal documents are not made available as required. As we detail later, companies sometimes use older public hearings to bypass the requirement of public hearings for new projects in the same area.

A report by a special NGT panel revealed to the court on October 31 that the Baghjan oil field is operating without mandatory environmental clearances. Yet new clearances were granted in the area, without public hearings.

Projects cleared without hearing

The Assam-Arakan Basin has a complex network of oil and gas wells and many of them either border eco-sensitive zones or are right in their midst: one of the two petitions in the NGT relates to the drilling of 18 wells and laying of gas pipelines in the Mechaki area. The other is regarding the drilling of hydrocarbons in seven locations in the Dibru Saikhowa National Park from the wells located in Baghjan mine lease area. Oil India Limited’s Baghjan mine lease spans 75 sq km and includes 17 operational oil wells and five gas wells. These lease areas are close to each other and in close proximity to either Dibru Saikhowa National Park, the Maguri Motapung Wetland or Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve.

There are 14 Oil India Limited projects spread across India, including the two being challenged, that have been granted exemptions from public hearing between 2011 and 2020, and all before the January amendment, according to an IndiaSpend review of clearance letters available on the Oil India Limited website. Apart from Oil India Limited, oil and gas projects of other companies too have been granted exemption from public hearings: the drilling of wells in South Assam and in Kutch-Saurashtra and Ankaleshwar in Gujarat by the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation were all sanctioned without public hearings in 2009, 2013 and 2017, respectively. Cairn India Energy was also granted a similar exemption for an increase in oil and gas production in its existing units in Barmer, Rajasthan, in 2010.

Why public scrutiny matters

The EIA Notification 2006 lays the procedure for the appraisal of infrastructure and industrial project proposals for their potential environmental and social impacts. Based on their size, capacity, location and severity of impacts, the notification categorises them as A, B1 and B2. A specialised, central EAC appraises A category projects and a State Expert Appraisal Committee assesses the impact of B1 and B2 category projects, which have a different set of criteria for environmental clearance – among other things, B2 projects are exempt from public consultations.

Public consultation is a critical stage of the appraisal process, during which local residents’ views are heard at a hearing at the proposed site as well as through written feedback. Environmental activists and experts can also participate. Public consultation is a crucial platform for citizens to participate in project-related decision making and scrutinise EIA reports, which are often filled with content copied from unrelated documents and fudged data.

Till January, as mentioned, the Centre had been granting exemptions from the mandatory public consultations in offshore and onshore oil and gas exploration projects on a case-by-case basis. On Oil India Limited’s website, the company records letters granting environmental clearance to 23 projects between 2011 and now. Of these, 14 were granted without a public hearing, as we said.

Dispensing with the requirement for public hearings for risky oil and gas exploration projects, which also face strong public opposition and have a poor track record of compliance, therefore raises questions, said activists. “Companies commit violations after violations, blame locals, evade public hearings and deny us a chance to share and record our genuine concerns,” said Bimal Gogoi, an environmental activist from Golaghat district in Assam.

Source: Website of Oil India Limited; accessed on September 23

Opaque decisions

Let us consider the case of the Dibru park clearance. On the grounds that Oil India Limited had already conducted a public hearing for its other projects in the area in July and August 2011 and December 2016, the EAC allowed the company to bypass public hearing in December 2017.

“We sought exemptions on the basis of provisions available in the law. We have not asked for anything in contravention to or outside of law,” said Tridiv Hazarika, general manager and spokesperson at Oil India Limited.

But a reading of the minutes of EAC meetings disprove this claim. When the environment ministry returned the clearance request to Oil India Limited for its failure to conduct a public hearing, the firm simply resubmitted the proposal, again without conducting a public hearing. The company claimed that “unruly acts of local pressure groups” made a public hearing a challenge, and the EAC accepted the claim.

“…exemption from conducting a public hearing for the project which would have large scale impact on the health of the local communities, was unjustified,” argued the petition filed by Bimal Gogoi and Mridu Paban Phukan, a wildlife activist from Naharkatia district in Assam, against the environmental clearance granted in Mechaki area. “Moreover, such exemption was granted on the ground that public hearing had already been conducted earlier which was incorrect information as the said public hearing was held for another project.”

People’s right to express

A public hearing is the right of any community that stands to be affected by a risky project, said Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer representing the petitioners in the two NGT cases. “The right to participate in a public hearing is a substantive right,” he argued. “When an expert panel does away with the need for conducting a public hearing while appraising the environmental impact of a proposed project, it is an impingement on the local people’s right to express.”

In addition to the NGT cases, the High Court of Guwahati is also hearing a public interest litigation –about the bypassing of public hearing among other things – against the environmental clearance granted to Oil India Limited in the Dibru park.

Our analysis of the environmental clearances granted to Oil India Limited’s 13 projects in Assam showed that a public hearing was conducted only in four. Oil India Limited too says it has conducted four hearings in the area. “It [Baghjan] is not a virgin area. We have been operating here for the past 15 years, and in the last eight to ten years, we have had four public hearings,” said Hazarika.

Source: Website of Oil India Limited; accessed on September 23

Hearings not publicised enough

A proposal to drill in the Khagorijan block of Oil India Limited spread over Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts was never cleared by the environment ministry despite two public hearings, one of which was not completed. But on the basis of the one completed hearing, the EAC recommended clearances for the Mechaki and Dibru park projects.

OIL told IndiaSpend that the company was “scapegoated” despite its “good reputation” in Khagorijan. “The first public hearing was inconclusive as the meeting was disrupted by the locals,” said Hazarika. “Subsequently we had another public hearing which was successful. However, the project could not start because of local protest. People were agitated about government inaction on river erosion in the region but vented their rage on us and halted our project.”

However, there have been allegations that Oil India Limited has influenced public hearings, rigging them to get favourable results by winning over local pressure groups.

Some of the locals told us that public hearings are not publicised enough and this affects their outcome. For example, notices of upcoming hearings in Baghjan are not publicised enough by the State Pollution Control Board, said Gohain. “If people know about them, they will go,” he said. “The panchayat office, block office and the industry office are all supposed to keep a copy of the EIA report for us to review. But we hardly get them from there – we have to source them online. But how many people have access to the internet? All this has an impact on who says what in a public hearing.”

The other petition, against the clearance granted in Dibru Saikhowa National Park, argued that EAC’s decision to exempt public hearings was unjustified. “The Environmental Impact Assessment Notification permits exemption on certain grounds on a report submitted by the State Pollution Control Board. In the present case no such report has been submitted and under the law, the Expert appraisal Committee has no jurisdiction to grant exemption on its own,” it argued.

To assess the local situation, the Expert Appraisal Committee should have asked for a report from the Assam Pollution Control Board, as is mandatory under the EIA Notification 2006, pointed out Ritwick Dutta. Both the petitions have been scheduled for next hearing on December 15.

IndiaSpend emailed a query on the contention made in the court case to AK Pateshwary, director of the environment ministry, who had signed the clearance letter to Oil India Limited on the Dibru drilling. A set of questions was also sent to the Assam Pollution Control Board seeking their views on the matter. This was followed up with one phone call each over the last four weeks. However, we did not get any official response. We will update this story if and when we receive a reply.

Oil India Limited is not alone

Offshore projects that lie 10 km beyond village boundaries, gaothans (human settlement areas) and ecologically sensitive areas may be exempted from public hearing, a technical EIA guidance manual for onshore and offshore oil and gas exploration, development and production projects recommended. The manual was prepared by Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services in August 2010 for the environment ministry. Since then, many offshore oil and gas projects have been allowed to bypass public hearing.

For instance, in 2013 ONGC was exempted from public hearing for the drilling of exploratory wells in a Kutch-Saurashtra offshore block in Gujarat. Similarly, no public hearing was prescribed in the Terms of Reference granted to it in 2017 for the drilling of four wells in an offshore block of Aliabet field in Ankleshwar, Gujarat.

Even onshore oil pipelines have been given this leeway, as we said earlier. Cairn India Energy was permitted to increase its crude oil production and processing capacity and related gas production in Rajasthan’s Barmer district. And ONGC was similarly given clearance for exploratory drilling of 30 onshore wells in South Assam. One of the often-used grounds for seeking a public hearing exemption is that the company has already conducted hearings in the region. (Here is an example of ONGC requesting for an exemption using this argument.)

Source: Environmental Clearance webpage the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change; accessed on November 2

Disaster risks ‘underestimated’

Both regulatory authorities and companies often underestimate disaster risks in their assessments and reports, said experts. The Wildlife Institute of India report also underlines the poor emergency response readiness of oil and gas companies in Assam and their ineffective management of oil spills, as IndiaSpend reported in September.

“Risk assessment carried out in respect of the project is shoddy, erroneous and fails to highlight the actual risk posed from incidents of oil spills and oil well blowout fire and has been carried out as a mere formality in a mechanical manner,” said the petition against the Mechaki project. The petition against drilling by Oil India Limited in the Dibru park also argued that the EIA undermined the risks.

Oil and gas companies’ compliance record is also poor. A National Board for Wildlife panel observed during a site visit in 2013 that Oil India Limited had initiated the construction of a pipeline without an environmental clearance. Its report noted strong local opposition to the path of the pipelines and the company’s disregard for EIA procedures.

An NGT panel found out recently that the Baghjan oil field and 26 wells in Assam are operating without environmental clearances, as we said. It mentioned in its preliminary report that the Oil India Limited well has been operating without environmental clearance from the environment ministry since November 2006.

In the case of ONGC, the regional office of the environment ministry said in its 2016 monitoring report that conditions on which environmental clearance was granted for the drilling of 30 wells in Assam were violated. Non-compliances included pending forest clearances, violation of solid waste disposal guidelines and irregular submission of monitoring reports.

In Tamil Nadu’s Thiruvarur district, repeated incidents of pipeline leakages have reportedly irked locals, and an NGT-appointed committee noted in July 2020 that measures to control oil leakages were inadequate. As recently as September 2020, an underground ONGC pipeline carrying natural gas leaked and damaged a paddy field in the district. The company was reprimanded by the court for lapses in preventing oil spills.

Although the ministry and the project owners claim that offshore explorations are harmless because they take place away from populated areas, their impact on fisheries and coastlines can be severe, as noted by Chennai-based activist Nityanand Jayaraman here and here.

The news of the January 2020 amendment triggered renewed protests by farmers and political parties in the Cauvery Delta. The region had seen sporadic protests since 2010 against hydrocarbon explorations, which had gained steam in 2019 after the environment ministry permitted ONGC and Vedanta to conduct environmental impact assessments for exploration in the area. Responding to the local opposition, in February, the Tamil Nadu assembly rejected drilling of over 300 exploration wells by ONGC and Vedanta.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.