Oil and gas firms no longer need to seek an environmental clearance to conduct onshore and offshore exploratory drilling, The Hindu reported on Sunday. The process is an ecologically-intensive exercise that involves digging multiple wells and conducting seismic surveys offshore.

Earlier, firms seeking to conduct exploratory surveys had to prepare an environment impact assessment plan, which had to be scrutinised by a centrally-constituted committee of experts. Then the proposal had to be subjected to a public hearing involving the local residents of the proposed project site. However, public hearings were often exempted.

The new amendments demote exploratory projects from the highest level of environmental scrutiny, called category ‘A’, to the ‘B2’ category. This means it will be conducted by the states concerned and will not require an environment impact assessment plan. The move is part of a larger process of “decentralisation” by the Centre.

Environmentalists, however, fear that the amendments could invite oversight. “This is part of a continuing trend by the larger lack of oversight by the Environment Ministry,” Conservation Action Trust member Debi Goenka told The Hindu.

This can also affect farms and sea life, fear environmentalists. Activist Nityanand Jayaraman said that offshore drilling operations can hamper fish, build up heavy water contaminants, disorient whales and sea life and increase the risk of oil spills.

Developing an offshore or onshore drilling site as a hydrocarbon block will, however, continue to merit a “category A” scrutiny. In 2019, the Centre had relaxed rules that incentivise companies conducting oil exploration surveys in less-explored oil fields. The Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and the Vedanta group were granted permission to conduct exploratory oil surveys in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. This had led to protests led by the Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Congress. Both parties had argued that exploratory drilling will lead to destruction of agricultural fields in the Cauvery delta.