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WII cautions against drilling ops near protected forest areas

Drilling sites close to important wildlife habitats should avoid operations during peak activity hours, such as early morning and late evening, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) has recommended while cautioning against environmental impacts of extended reach drilling (ERD) technology in protected forest areas.

The WII made recommendations related to ERD technology for oil and gas in wildlife rich areas during the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) meeting on August 1.

Earlier, the Directorate General of Hydrocarbon (DGH) had proposed to the committee that ERD in protected forest areas be exempted from mandatory clearances under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The environment ministry then ordered a study on the impact of ERD technology. The DGH submitted its report in March this year and the same was shared with WII to get a view on the impact of such technology on wildlife, according to the minutes of FAC meeting published on Thursday.

ERD is a technology for drilling longer horizontal wells at a high inclination angle to reach underground oil/natural gas deposits further away from the drilling spot, instead of drilling wells vertically.

WII in a letter to FAC on May 9 submitted its observations on the report, saying the DGH report is primarily based on secondary information/data, the minutes said.

“There is no quantitative and scientific data supporting the observations of the committee,” it said. “To devise precise guidelines, especially concerning wildlife, credible primary data concerning wildlife species needs to be relied upon.”

The WII made some general recommendations to be considered while considering ERD near wildlife sensitive areas, the FAC observed.

“The drilling sites should be located at the base of the catchment areas or downstream to avoid the spill-over directly into the water,” it said. “Drilling should be avoided in corridor areas, especially in areas known to have landscape-dependent species such as elephants and tigers, etc.”

WII has also recommended that distance of the drilling site from the protected area/wildlife corridors/wildlife sensitive areas should not be less than 1 km based on the precautionary principle, the FAC said.

“Drilling sites close to important wildlife habitats should avoid operations during peak wildlife activity, such as early morning and late evening hours,” it said. “Drilling site should be installed with an active noise-proof solution to avoid impacting local habitats and wildlife… Approach roads built towards the drilling site should be avoided if passing through sensitive wildlife areas/protected areas or corridors.”

Following WII’s recommendations, FAC on Thursday recommended that a report on the impacts of ERD technology be prepared based on primary data.

“Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, in collaboration with the DGH may collect the primary data from the existing locations where ERD technology is being used in the country and prepare a report and submit the same to the ministry of environment within three months for further consideration,” the FAC said. “Expenses to be incurred in the process of data collection and report preparation will be borne by the DGH.”

On March 12, HT reported that the Union environment ministry is considering a proposal on whether ERD in protected forest areas can be exempted from mandatory clearances under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The ministry gave the environmental clearance to Oil India Limited on May 11 for extension drilling and testing of hydrocarbons at seven locations under Dibru Saikhowa National Park, however, the forest clearance for the project is still pending.

The DGH in its report said there can be “indirect” impacts of such drilling such as forest fires resulting from oil leakages; soil surface contamination etc. The report further said that no direct impact of the technology was observed on fauna.

“Extended reach drilling will also be done in the zone of influence of the protected area, whether it is inside or outside. A Baghjan-like incident can happen again so we need to be extremely careful about such projects in biodiversity rich areas,” said Qamar Qureshi, scientist, Wildlife Institute of India. “We also need a highly professional approach in oil and gas exploration and extraction. Just developing the well is not enough. Companies are required to have a professional attitude, which is presently lacking.”

The gas blowout in Oil India Limited’s Baghjan oilfield in Assam in May 2020 lasted for several months and led to damage to local ecology. The Baghjan well is located near Dibru Saikhowa National Park, the Maguri-Motapung wetlands, and the forest villages of Barekuri, which are home to endangered hoolock gibbons and Gangetic dolphins.

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