TN CM’s declaration to protect Cauvery delta welcome, celebrating it is premature

Proposals to establish two mega oil refineries within the Cauvery delta raises doubts of whether the delta environment may just be moving from the frying pan into the fire, writes Nityanand Jayaraman.
TN CM’s declaration to protect Cauvery delta welcome, celebrating it is premature
TN CM’s declaration to protect Cauvery delta welcome, celebrating it is premature

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami’s announcement at a public meeting in Salem about legislating a special Act to protect the Cauvery Delta as a protected agricultural region is welcome news. Considering the explicit reference made to hydrocarbon projects in the delta, such an announcement can only mean that the government too acknowledges the incompatibility of hydrocarbon activities with activities such as agriculture and fisheries. Such an acknowledgement is scientifically sound.

However, a day before this announcement, the CM declared with some sense of achievement that the long-dormant proposal for a petrochemical refinery in Cuddalore – one of the delta districts -- would be revived with a Rs 50,000 crore investment by Haldia Petrochemicals. 

Meanwhile, plans are afoot to replace the existing 1 million tonne per annum (mtpa) Cauvery basin refinery in Nagapattinam, with a 9 mtpa refinery complete with a mega polypropylene plastics manufacturing unit. 

Establishing two mega oil refineries within the Cauvery delta raises doubts of whether the delta environment may just be moving from the frying pan into the fire.

Before the celebrations can begin, some doubts need to be clarified and that can happen only after the draft Bill is published.

Hydrocarbon confusion

In Tamil Nadu’s delta districts, people are triggered to confusion and concern if the words “hydrocarbon” or “methane” are used, while the use of “oil” and “gas” is viewed more complacently. This needs to be clarified.

Petroleum is a collective term that refers to crude oil, natural gas and solid mixtures like tar and asphalt. Each of these is a mixture of hydrocarbon molecules – or molecules that contain hydrogen and carbon, and toxic contaminants like sulphur, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds. The word hydrocarbon is used to refer to any and all of the members of the petroleum family. Crude oil is a liquid hydrocarbon, and natural gas is in vapour form. Methane is the principal ingredient in natural gas and is often used interchangeably to refer to petroleum gas.

Crude oil and natural gas or methane can be extracted either conventionally, where underground formations are porous enough to allow easy flow of hydrocarbons into the well, or non-conventionally, where methods like fracking are used to break reserves that lie within non-porous substrates.

Non-conventional methods are even more damaging than conventional techniques as they are more water-intensive, cause more pollution both underground and at the surface, and can trigger minor seismic events and land-subsidence.

In the delta districts, hydrocarbon activities fall into three broad categories – exploration and extraction, transportation or conveyance to processing centres, and processing. Exploration, extraction, and transportation/conveyance affect both the marine and onshore environment depending on the location of the activity.

Elephant in the room

Petrochemical refineries are large, red category, ultra-hazardous industries that pollute the air and water. Panipat, Mangaluru, Kochi, Manali, Haldia are all prominent refinery locations around the country. All locations were declared as critically polluted by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) because of the degraded soil, air and water quality in the region.

Refineries require feedstock – crude oil – and internal fuel (usually natural gas) which are conveyed to the plants through pipelines. While imported crude will be brought in by ships and conveyed to land by submarine pipelines, crude oil produced from ONGC’s existing Cauvery assets will be shipped to anchor refineries through pipelines.

According to Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas’ figures, all the onshore and offshore wells in the delta together produced 254,000 tonnes of crude oil in 2016. It is the extraction, transportation and processing of this crude that has caused so much conflict in the delta.

If the government’s proposals for new refineries are acted upon, 19 mtpa of local and imported crude oil will be handled and processed in the Cauvery delta region at two locations – in Cuddalore and Nagapattinam – a 75-fold increase in the quantum of crude oil that will be moved and processed within the delta.

According to the executive summary of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the proposed Nagapattinam refinery, the project will require 1338.29 acres of land, of which 726 acres is under acquisition. “Pipeline route options has been worked out for a total of 18 (Eighteen) nos. of pipeline i.e. 02 nos. of Crude Oil pipelines from SPM to Refinery through LFP, 8 nos. of product pipelines from CBR to Karaikal Port, 5 nos. of return pipelines from Karaikal Port to CBR, 02 nos. of raw water pipeline from Sea to refinery and one reject pipeline from CBR to Sea (with discharge at approximate 1m water depth location within sea).” 

Besides the degradation of groundwater caused by production and abandoned wells, one of the main complaints in the delta has been about leaks and spills from underground pipelines, and pollution caused by processing centres such as the refinery and hydrocarbon aggregating stations.

It remains to be seen how the new legislation proposes to deal with ongoing hydrocarbon extraction and the maze of pipelines that already crisscross the delta.

Moving offshore

The exploration and extraction activities impact both on land and at sea depending on whether the wells are drilled and operated are on land or offshore in the Bay of Bengal. Offshore wells too eventually impact the quality of air, water and land on shore as they have to be conveyed to land by pipelines or ships for further processing and use.

A bulk of the proposed exploration appears to be in offshore locations. In April 2019, for instance, Vedanta applied for environmental clearance for drilling 274 exploratory wells over a license area of 4,368 sq km. Of this, 4047 sq km or 93% of the area is in the nearshore of mid-sea portions of the Bay of Bengal off Villupuram, Nagapattinam, Puducherry and Karaikal.

Only an examination of the proposed legislation will reveal if the ban on hydrocarbon activities will include offshore as well as onshore wells.

The law, however, is only as good as the enforcement. The fact that all of the wells that are operating or have been drilled have no license under Air and Water Act from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) highlights the lack of regulation and enforcement of environmental laws.

A study co-authored by this writer in 2018 revealed that:

TNPCB has records only for 219 wells, where ONGC claims to have dug 700 wells in the delta districts of Cuddalore, Ariyalur, Nagapattinam, Thiruvarur, Thanjavur, Pudukottai and Ramanathapuram. TNPCB records reveal that only 71 wells are operational – none with valid licenses – whereas ONGC claims to have 183 wells in production. Exploratory and production wells require valid “Consent to Operate” under Air and Water (Control and Prevention of Pollution) Acts.

Hazardous industries are required to undertake systematic environmental monitoring of air, surface water and groundwater, and file annual environmental audit statements. Since the wells operate beyond the pale of the law, none of these documents are available for public scrutiny.

Onshore mishaps like oil spills and pipeline leakages and fires are visible and draw considerable attention. Offshore pollution and incidents go virtually unnoticed, except by fisherfolk out at sea. Exploration, particularly using seismic sensing – where high-pressure air guns direct explosive blasts aimed at the ocean floor – is deadly to some sea mammals and harms and scares away other fish. Leaks of methane from the ocean floor during and after drilling contributes heavily to global warming even as well pollution increases the load of toxic heavy metals in the marine food chain.

PCPIR Vs Delta

The Puducherry and Tamil Nadu government’s decision on the future of offshore exploration, and the two refineries will decide whether or not the delta has a fair shot at reviving its agricultural heritage.

These activities are central to the mammoth Government of India scheme called the Petrochemical and Petroleum Investment Region (PCPIR). In 2012, the Government of India announced a 256 square kilometre PCPIR hub straddling the Coleroon and Cauvery arms of the delta in Cuddalore and Nagapattinam districts. The delta PCPIR was a flagship program announced by the DMK’s MK Alagiri who was then the Union Minister of Chemicals and Fertilisers.

The refineries will serve as anchor industries and a supplier of a range of products that will serve as raw materials or intermediates for the production of pharmaceuticals, pesticides, plastics such as poly viny chloride and polypropylene, and fertilisers. These industries are both land- and water-intensive, the land-use changes that result from such large-scale industrialisation is likely to put farm livelihoods at risk.

In Tamil Nadu, the ruling party and the opposition have expressed their support to the call of delta residents to convert the region into a special agricultural zone. This is a healthy sign. Now, both parties should make good on their promises and go the whole mile to assure residents that they will walk the talk. To do that, they have to reject the PCPIR project and the two refineries that are central to it, put a freeze on any further hydrocarbon exploration or extraction, and shut down all unlicensed hydrocarbon activities in the delta.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist, and co-author of report titled “Illegal Business: The Real Story of ONGC’s Operations in Cauvery Basin.” Views are author’s own.  

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