The Gauhati High Court has asked the Centre, the Assam government and Oil India Limited to file their responses in a plea challenging the Union environment ministry’s decision to give clearance to the firm to drill seven wells in the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, PTI reported on Wednesday. The park is one of the two ecologically fragile areas flanking the Baghjan oil field, where a massive blowout occurred in May.

A bench comprised of Chief Justice Ajai Lamba and Justice Manish Choudhury on August 17, directed the respondents – Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, the Assam government’s Department of Forest and Environment, State Board of Wildlife and Oil India Ltd – to file their affidavits by September 21.

The court was hearing a petition filed jointly by advocate Mrinmoy Khataniar and mountaineer Amar Jyoti Deka. The petitioners challenged the Centre’s decision to allow OIL to drill inside the forest, which is rich in biodiversity, by amending existing norms.

“The entire action of the authorities in bringing in the amendment... smacks of malice in fact and malice in law and is clearly reflective of abuse of powers as vested in governmental authorities, besides being [in] violation of the various protections under the Constitution of India,” the petition said.

Besides this, the plea contended that an accident similar to the explosion witnessed at the Baghjan gas well might occur and threaten the existence of the entire park.

On Monday, Oil India had managed to cap the Baghjan gas well in Tinsukia, over 80 days after the well had a major blowout on May 27. However, the final well-killing operation to douse the fire at Oil India Limited’s gas well failed on Tuesday due to technical problems. A massive fire had been raging at the oil well since June 9.

The High Court, in its order, observed that drilling and testing of hydrocarbons were extended to seven locations under the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park by dispensing public hearing on “extraneous grounds”.

It said the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change had amended the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2020 through a notification on January 16 this year, and categorised all onshore and offshore oil and gas exploration as “B2 Project’ from ‘A Project”, thereby exempting public hearing and consultation.

On May 11, Oil India received environmental clearance for hydrocarbon exploration in the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park using a new technology called extended reach drilling. The technique would allow Oil India to drill horizontally from outside the park to tap the hydrocarbon reserves within. OIL had asserted that no disturbance would be caused to the environment because of the use of extended-reach drilling.

Also read:

Modi government shrunk eco-sensitive zones to make way for Oil India’s projects in Assam