CM MK Stalin had written a letter to PM Modi on Sunday urging him to cancel the Union government’s bid to extract hydrocarbon in the Cauvery basin.

MK Stalin sits before a desk with his hands on his chin, as a bust of Karunanidhi sits in the right hand corner
news Environment Monday, June 14, 2021 - 18:17

On 13 June, 2021, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister  MK Stalin wrote to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting him to delete Vadatheru, Pudukottai from the list of Discovered Small Fields (DSF) of hydrocarbons put up for bidding by the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons. “The Cauvery Basin, as you are well aware, is the bedrock of Tamil Nadu’s food security and agro based economy from time immemorial. This ecologically fragile zone supports the livelihood of millions of farmers and farm workers,” according to a press release issued by the Chief Minister. 

“The identified area for auction falls in the Cauvery basin and also in the Protected Agricultural Zone declared by the State Government, under the Tamil Nadu Protected Agricultural Zone Development Act, 2020. This legislation prohibits any new exploration, drilling and extraction of Oil and Natural Gas and other similar hydrocarbons from the Protected Agricultural Zone,” the press release noted.

Tamil Nadu’s vibrant culture of public protests against land-degrading activities has forced a substantial shift in the electoral positioning of political parties on environmental issues. Many including MK Stalin’s DMK have endorsed the protests against big-ticket infrastructure schemes like expressways and megaports. The Chief Minister’s announcement should be read as the government’s intent to underscore its commitment to revalourising agriculture.

While welcomed by Tamil Nadu’s farmers and civil society, the Chief Minister’s decision is not likely to go down without a fight by ONGC or the Union government; the Vadatheru fields are reportedly a rich find. The Chief Minister’s request to the Union, though, is on firm legal ground, especially given the questionable legal status of ONGC’s operations in the delta.

A chequered history

Exploration for hydrocarbons in the Cauvery Basin began in the 1950s, with the first deep exploration well drilled in 1964. Surveys conducted since then estimate the onshore hydrocarbon reserves at around 430 million tonnes.

Hydrocarbon activities in the delta are largely below the radar with Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) playing no role in regulating ONGC or other operators. The findings of a 2018 study titled “Illegal Business: The Real Story of ONGC’s Operations in Cauvery Basin” are revealing. According to the report, ONGC, the largest leaseholder in Cauvery basin, claims to have drilled more than 700 wells in the delta districts of Cuddalore, Ariyalur, Nagapattinam, Thiruvarur, Thanjavur, Pudukottai and Ramanathapuram. As of 2018, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board had records only for 219 wells; of these, only 71 wells are shown as operational, albeit without valid licenses under Air or Water Act. The number of illegally operating hydrocarbon wells may be more than double the numbers registered in TNPCB, as ONGC claimed to have 183 wells in production in 2018.

TNPCB has taken no corrective action since the release of the report. For instance, according to TNPCB’s records, 25 out of 71 operational wells are in Nagapattinam. However, the Board’s Online Consent Management System does not reflect any ONGC well as having received a license at any time between 2014 and now. Nor is any hydrocarbon well in Pudukottai district registered as having a license. 

On 21 August 2013, ONGC received an Environmental Clearance (EC) for exploratory drilling of “24 additional wells” in the 1545 square km wide L-II block spread over Thanjavur, Thiruvarur, Nagapattinam and Pudukottai. The Vadatheru hydrocarbon deposits are part of discoveries made within the L-II block. 

The EC covered the drilling of four wells – three in Karambakudi taluk and one in Thiruvonam -- in Vadatheru fields in Pudukkottai at the southern end of the L-II block, in addition to 20 locations in other districts.

The process of exploratory drilling for hydrocarbon involves the daily generation of 5000 litres of wastewater per well. If hydrocarbons are found, the methane-rich gases that rushes out of the well will have to be burnt before releasing into the air. Hydrocarbon wells also face a risk of serious disasters like blow-outs when pressure control systems fail, and oil and gas under high pressure gush forth from the earth’s bowels.

Before the start of drilling operations, ONGC ought to have applied for a Consent to Operate (CTO) under the Air and Water Act. There is no Consent (license) on record for any location within Pudukkottai in TNPCB’s online database. The Vadatheru discovery too appears to have been done without TNPCB’s permission or regulation.

In June 2020,  ONGC submitted an application to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) seeking an extension of the 2013 EC for 24 wells. In its application, ONGC stated that it drilled only 17 wells out of 24. “Seven wells could not be drilled due to various reasons such as priority of drilling, LAQ issues, resource allocations, etc,” ONGC wrote in its letter to MoEFCC seeking extension.

By this time, in February 2020, the Government of Tamil Nadu had already passed the Tamil Nadu Protected Agricultural Zone Development Act, 2020, which prohibited drilling of new hydrocarbon wells in areas identified in a schedule to the Act.

On 26 June, 2020, MoEFCC raised a query asking ONGC to “confirm that as per the recent orders/notification of Government of Tamil Nadu regarding restriction in Cauvery region, whether the proposed activities are now permitted in the project area.”

In its response to MoEFCC, ONGC referred to Section 4 (2) of the Act which states that the prohibitory clauses of the Act will not apply to “activities or projects in operation in the protected agricultural zone before the date of coming into force of this Act.” ONGC argued that its EC dated 21 August, 2013 predates the Act, and that its exploratory drilling was “in operation.”

On 15 October, 2020, MoEFCC granted an extension for drilling of new exploratory wells despite the fact that the Act expressly prohibited drilling of new wells. The state government too did not raise any objections to the extension of clearance. According to an article in The New Indian Express on the grant of extension, “Officials from the Environment Department told TNIE that the current and ongoing oil business will not be disturbed in the notified area, and that no new hydrocarbon project will be allowed.” 

That was not the only legal issue. ONGC failed to reveal to MoEFCC that the 17 wells already drilled did not have a valid CTO from the TNPCB. In response to a question in the application form for extension that sought a “copy of Consent to Operate valid as on date,” ONGC has uploaded a CTO dated 19 February 2014, for one well in Kurvadi village, Nagapattinam Taluk. This exposes illegalities on at least three counts: First, ONGC has furnished a CTO for only one well instead of 24 wells. Second, the furnished CTO expired on 31 March, 2014 and was not valid on the date of application. Third, the CTO was for a well in Nagapattinam Taluk, while neither of the two wells mentioned in the Environmental Clearance is in Nagapattinam Taluk – one is in Kivelur, and the other in Thirumarugal taluk.

Hydrocarbon exploration and extraction are highly polluting activities. TNPCB and MoEFCC’s non-existent environmental due diligence, and the casual attitude of oil companies like ONGC has already led to contamination of vast areas of land and groundwater. Routine pollution aside, the risk of a disastrous blow out is real and consequences extremely grave.

On 27 May, 2020, a natural gas blowout in Oil India’s Baghjan Oil Field led to explosions and fires that raged uncontrollably for more than five months burning down everything in an area of 8 sq km. A report by the Assam Forest Department pegged losses due to the well blowout at Rs. 25,000 crore – Rs 10,000 crore more than the estimated damage caused by the Gaja Cyclone.

According to the MK Yadava, chief wildlife warden and author of the report on the Baghjan blowout, the disaster was caused by “the faulty nature of environment clearances due to misreporting in the environmental impact assessment, which undermined the possibility of a blowout and the destruction it caused to the ecosystem.”

In Cauvery delta too, ONGC’s operations and TNPCB’s failure to enforce the law has resulted in widespread contamination. Just in one year between February 2017 and February 2018, the author documented five hazardous incidents involving oil spills, fires and damage to paddy fields and wetlands. 

The incidents triggered widespread protests. But the administration ignored ONGC’s offences. Leave alone act against ONGC or shut down illegal wells, TNPCB failed to even bring operational wells under its regulation. Lax regulators and complacent operators drastically increase the risks from hydrocarbon operations.

Chief Minister Stalin’s speedy response to the Union Government’s mindless pursuit of business may have thwarted a full-scale agitation in the delta at a time when farmers must be focused on sowing for the Kuruvai crop. But to secure the region in the long-term from hazards and pollution from hydrocarbon installations, the state government should commission a full-blown inquiry into the enviro-legal status of all hydrocarbon installations in the delta. The commission should inventorise operational and abandoned wells, assess extent of environmental contamination, secure compensation and initiate the restoration of contaminated ecosystems. Most importantly, the commission should recommend measures to repair the broken Pollution Control Board institution.

Nityanand is a Chennai-based writer, and a co-author of a 2018 report on ONGC’s business in Tamil Nadu.