It has been three weeks since Oil India Limited’s (OIL’s) Baghjan oilfield in Tinsukia district blew out. Although the National Disaster Response Force has already been deployed, the leak’s adverse impact on the rich biodiversity of the region won’t be averted. There is already evidence that condensates from the blowout have killed Gangetic river dolphins and several birds. The site is also close to the Maguri Motapung beel (wetland) and the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.
To control the blowout, OIL created a ‘crisis management team’ to take precautionary measures. Their officials have placed water pumps in nearby rivers, have been laying pipelines to the blowout site, and have begun constructing a water reservoir in an adjacent plot of land. Around 650 families, comprising 2,500 people, have been evacuated to three relief camps at two schools nearby.
After considering proposals from three disaster-management firms, OIL commissioned a three-member from Alert, a Singapore based firm, that arrived in Assam on June 8. Meanwhile, the state forest department has issued a notice to OIL seeking a detailed report on the extent of environmental damage caused.
The enviro-legal scenario regarding oil mining is primarily regulated by the India Mines Act 1952. However in 1984, the Government of India enacted the Oil Mines Regulations (OMR), replacing the 1933 regulations. The 1984 regulation was published by the Directorate General of Mines Safety, an agency created to administer and execute the India Mines Act 1952 and its rules. OMR 1984 articulates clauses on ‘blowout prevention’.
According to Section 2, a blowout is an uncontrolled, sudden and violent escape of fluids from a well. The same section also enshrines provisions for a blowout preventer assembly, blowout control systems, testing and precautions against and after a blowout.
The Centre had amended the OMR in 2017. And OMR 2017 clearly states that during the whole time any work of controlling a blowout is in progress, several precautions shall be taken. For example, an area not less than 500 meters measured from the outer most point of the installation shall be considered a ‘danger zone’. All electrical installations within the danger zone should be de-energised, and no naked light or vehicular traffic shall be permitted here. Only approved safety lamps or torches can be used. OIL is also required to provide a sufficient number of self-contained breathing apparatuses and firefighting equipment.
In addition, the manager of a mine is obligated to carefully investigate any matter affecting the environment and safety or health of persons in or about the mine. A safety officer has several duties to identify dangers that may damage the environment. Section 129 of the OMR 2017 envisages a detailed provision on protecting against environmental pollution.
The existing laws are not silent about environmental protection, but we are yet to perceive the actual damage that has been wrought.
OIL has appointed a NABET-accredited consultant to undertake an environment impact assessment (EIA) of the area, to assess the effects of the blowout on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Experts from The Energy and Resources Institute (better known as TERI), New Delhi, will also be conducting a bioremediation and restoration measure in the pipeline.
The environmental impact of such incidents brings us to absolute liability. The oil pollution liability arising from blowouts has a very strong civil penalty regime in other countries. In 2019, an NGO filed a petition against the US Department of Interior and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) in a district court in Columbia after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, which was the result of a failed blowout preventer. The oil spill in that incident was an eye-opener for regulators and environmental activists both. In the suit, the plaintiff alleged that the two government agencies granted offshore drillers alternate compliance and departures from the Blowout Prevention Rules by waiving several crucial safeguards.
Last year, the BSEE adopted an improved version of the Blowout Preventer Systems and Well Control Regulations. The revised rules emphasise real-time monitoring by removing unnecessary burdens on stakeholders and maintaining safety.
India needs to learn from these incidents, and government agencies should sincerely consider the financial solvency of mining entities to channel the polluter pays principle, particularly to restore and remediate damaged ecosystems. The existing OMR duly considers the Environment Protection Rules of 1986 but it also needs to pay attention to the ecological sensitivity of adjoining regions.
The 37th meeting of the Expert Committee of the environment ministry, in September 2019, listed the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park plus 21 others for declaration of eco-sensitive zones (ESZ) around protected areas. The status of this national park has been under the radar since 2016. It was previously considered in the 24th ESZ meeting, in February 2017. The draft proposal’s consideration was deferred on Assam’s request and subsequently expired on August 6, 2017. The Assam government submitted a revised proposal in 2018; this time, the committee deferred the proposal and sought details of OIL’s oil-drilling sites and the impact of such drilling on water quality.
The state representative apprised the ESZ committee that the protected area covered 340 sq. km and the proposed ESZ area covered 658 sq. km. As OIL’s extraction activity was underway, the Assam government considered OIL’s request and revised the extent of the eco-sensitive zone. Subsequently, the expert committee recommended the final draft’s re-notification. The Baghjan blowout happened near the proposed region.
In 2013, the NBWL standing committee had expressed concerns over the implications of OIL’s Baghjan oilfield for the wildlife in the nearby protected area. The oilfield had been established in 2003 as a petroleum mining lease. Per the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2006, a public hearing is mandatory for Category A projects. OIL proposed the use of extended-reach drilling (ERD) technology to extract oil. The company had previous submitted a pre-feasibility report for ERD wells in the Baghjan area to the environment ministry, although it’s unclear if OIL used ERD technology at the Baghjan well itself.
OMR 2017 invokes high standards of environmental protection and preventive measures when conducting any oil-extraction activity. The Indian mining sector has immense potential because we have huge mineral resources. However, the extraction of such resources shouldn’t be to the detriment of the environment. We need to effectively implement the existing mining regulations in an environmentally sound and sustainable manner.
Chiradeep Basak is an assistant professor of law at the National Law University and Judicial Academy, Assam. He teaches and pursues research in the area of environmental law and climate change.