A response from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) obtained under the Right To Information (RTI) Act has revealed that several hydrocarbon exploratory projects planned in the Cauvery delta region by companies like Vedanta and Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) are pending clearance from the government of Tamil Nadu. The revelation indicates that these projects will now be considered new projects and hence might not receive the necessary permission from the state government to start work in the region.
Speaking to TNM, N Muruganandam, the Principal Secretary to Government (Industries department) said that an Expert Committee was formed six months ago to analyse the applications submitted by the companies to obtain the necessary licenses. “The Committee is studying the proposals. Meanwhile, these projects have not been given any permission to start work in the delta region and will be considered as new projects for the purpose of processing the applications. Thus at least four out of the six pending blocks will not be granted licenses since the new Act prohibits hydrocarbon exploration and extraction in the delta region,” he explained.
The Tamil Nadu assembly recently passed an Act declaring the Cauvery delta region as a ‘Protected Agricultural Zone’, and thereby barred several types of industries including hydrocarbon exploration from operating in the region. However, questions arose if the ban applies to new projects or does it apply even to projects that are already in the pipeline. The government of Tamil Nadu has now stated that projects, whose applications for licenses like the Petroleum Exploration License (PEL) and Petroleum Mining License (PML) are pending with the state government will also be considered ‘new projects’ and therefore assessed against the newly passed Act.
The RTI response lists six blocks of projects as pending with the government of Tamil Nadu. The list includes the proposals of Vedanta and ONGC to drill over 300 hydrocarbon exploration wells onshore and offshore in the Cauvery Delta region.
List of pending applications
In 2018, the government of India had signed an agreement with ONGC to allow the extraction of hydrocarbon from a 731-square kilometre area in Cuddalore and Nagapattinam districts. ONGC had applied for environmental clearance and Petroleum Exploration Licence (PEL) to set up 40 wells in these two districts.
Vedanta was allocated a block of area that covers 1794 Sq.km consisting of 139 sq km of Villupuram, 2 sq km of Puducherry and 1654 sq km of sea in the Bay of Bengal. It proposed to drill 116 exploratory wells in this block.
A second block was also allotted to Vedanta, which covers an area of 2574 sq km and includes the Cauvery Delta region. The project spans 142 sq km of Nagapattinam, 39 sq km of Karaikal and 2393 Sq km of sea in the Bay of Bengal. Vedanta proposes to drill 158 exploratory wells in this block.
In 2004, ONGC and Bharat Petro Resources Limited (BPRL) had taken a 140-square-kilometre area in Nagapattinam on lease under the New Exploration Licensing Policy. In 2012, crude oil presence was confirmed in the area and hence the companies had applied for a Petroleum Mining Lease (PML) from the government of Tamil Nadu, which is still pending.
Similarly, ONGC and BPRL had taken another 140-square-kilometre area in Ariyalur district on lease in 2007 under the New Exploration Licensing Policy. Ten wells were set up in the area and crude oil presence was confirmed. Following this, the companies had applied for PML from the government of Tamil Nadu to extract oil from these wells commercially.
In 2016, BPRL had taken one portion of land in Karaikkal and Gem Laboratories had taken a portion of land in Neduvasal on lease under the Discovered Small Field bids for hydrocarbon exploration. Both these companies had applied for PML to the government of Tamil Nadu.
Protests have been raging across the Cauvery delta since 2015 against the proposed hydrocarbon exploration projects. Farmers and opposition parties in the state have been vehemently opposing various projects including those in Neduvasal, Kathiramangalam and Nagapattinam.