Corporations in India can deploy untested, unassessed, and underregulated new techniques like fracking at a massive scale, exposing living systems in India to irreparable ecological damage.
Oil and gas corporations have been allowed to begin drilling and other hydrocarbon exploration activities in India without conducting environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies or public consultations since the beginning of this year.
The corporations are free to use any hydrocarbon exploration drilling technique without assessing its ecological impact on the natural world. This includes the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), a water-intensive method in which the corporations untap shale (natural) gas from impermeable sedimentary rocks by injecting a mixture of pressurised water and chemicals into the rocks.
Fracking is a new technology in India and each fracking activity requires between five to seven million liters of water, which is 5-10 times more than a conventional hydrocarbon drilling process. India’s draft policy on shale gas (2012) highlighted that fracking activities in India can severely deplete its water bodies causing fracking-specific irreparable harm to the living systems.
Generally, during the exploration phase of hydrocarbon productions, operators conduct small-scale hydrocarbon extraction activities before scaling up their drilling activities to a commercial level.
Conducting EIA studies on small-scale extraction activities can help regulator and communities in assessing the impacts of the proposed drilling techniques on the surrounding living systems. It is more important to conduct EIA studies during the exploration phase, when an operator proposes to deploy a new drilling technique into the natural world.
Corporations that have successfully explored hydrocarbons in India can start ‘monetising’ the ‘resources’ before the expiration of their contractual exploration phase, the Indian government clarified on June 25, 2020.
These corporations are no longer required to conduct an EIA study for exploring hydrocarbons in India, and the June clarification will allow them to deploy untested, unassessed, and underregulated new techniques like fracking at a massive scale, exposing living systems in India to irreparable ecological damage.
The implementation of shale gas fracking has raised several concerns worldwide, specifically in the US, which has already fracked millions of hectares of land.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) highlighted three major fracking-specific concerns: (1) the risk of ground and surface water contamination due to leakages, (2) intense use of water and land, and (3) continual increase of water consumption.
From 2011 to 2016, in major US shale gas sites, the water-use per well increased up to 770 percent, while flowback and produced water volumes generated within the first year of production increased up to 1440 percent.
Initial research suggests that there are several water-related threats that communities, living near US fracking sites, faced in the past decade. For instance, communities living near Marcellus Shale regions (North-eastern Pennsylvania) reported high-level of methane (major component of shale gas) in their drinking water and surrounding living systems. Moreover, in several states, corporations reinjected produced fracking water into the earth’s surface causing seismic activities and tremors.
The US was the first country to begin commercial fracking and now many states in the US have imposed bans (or restrictions) on fracking activities.
India has much to learn from America's water management issues relating to fracking, especially where regulatory and legislative gaps are concerned.
The 2016 US EPA study recommended that regulators worldwide look for the following fracking-specific water concerns before granting environmental clearance to the fracking activities. It warned that: (1) water requirement may rise exponentially while conducting shale gas fracking; 2) fracking may contaminate groundwater if shale well is not properly cased with cement; 3) there is a probability of methane contamination of ground water during shale gas fracking. There is a clear link between fracking and methane migration into the groundwater, a Duke University study showed.
While India is easing fracking regulations for operators, the US experience with shale gas raises reveal serious impact of fracking activities on water bodies.
It is noteworthy here that India, in its 2018 environmental management guidelines, citied the 2016 US EPA report but did not adopt any of its recommendations in its regulatory regime. Citing the US EPA report and other risk assessment studies several members of the European Union have imposed moratorium against fracking activities. The UK have also restricted fracking activities in their jurisdictions.
Currently, India is exploring shale gas reserves in 56 sites, spread across six Indian states, all located in water-stringent areas. India has made several regulatory changes since 2017 to ease out shale exploration and exploitation opportunities for government as well as private corporations.
The Indian government has implemented “Hydrocarbon Exploration and Licensing Policy (HELP),” placing both conventional drilling techniques and fracking under a common regulatory regime, and closing any opportunity of regulating fracking-specific water issues.
In August 2018, the Indian Cabinet passed a policy that allows fracking in contract areas that were previously allocated for exploring hydrocarbons through conventional drilling. The Indian parliament also amended its statutory definition of ‘Petroleum’ in August 2018, including shale gas and reassuring corporations that they may use fracking in contract areas that were primarily allocated for conventional drilling.
These policy changes have made shale gas fracking a practical choice for the state-owned and private corporations in India.
When operators were required to conduct EIA studies before starting exploratory fracking in 2019, India granted environmental clearance to three exploratory fracking projects. The EIA reported fracking-specific water challenges across all three projects.
None of the EIA studies disclosed the detailed sourcing of five to seven million litres of water in water stringent areas nor did they lay down a clear plan for properly disposing produced (flowback) water. Moreover, the regulators, while granting environmental clearances, raised no fracking-specific questions to the corporation and assessed the projects with the same parameters as applicable to conventional drilling.
Several civil society members highlighted the need for a fracking-specific environmental clearance guideline after noting these obvious flaws in the EIA studies
However, instead of mending these regulatory gaps, the Indian government has allowed corporations to explore shale gas resource through fracking without conducting EIA studies.
Environmentalists and communities in India have no access to information on how proposed fracking projects will impact the natural world. Moreover, since regulators in India did not conduct any risk assessments before allowing fracking projects, there is no scientific certainty that proposed fracking projects - all of which are located in water-stringent areas - will not irreparably harm the surround living systems.
Fracking water-scarce living systems in India is a disaster in the making. Over 70 percent of India’s surface and groundwater are already contaminated and its ground water depletion rate is the highest on the living planet (India’s groundwater abstraction is higher than the sum of total groundwater abstraction of the US and China).
Still, India recently gave a free pass to corporations to conduct exploratory fracking and monetise the fabric of the earth.
Shashikant Yadav is a researcher, writer, and academic currently affiliated with the University of Dundee, Scotland, as a visiting scholar. He writes about environmental justice, ecocide law, and illiberal democracy.