Sunday, November 25, 2018

India Shale Gas: Environmental Concerns

Shale gas is natural gas trapped in very fined grained sedimentary rocks like shales. These rocks are not very permeable. To release the gas trapped in the tiny pore spaces, the rock is fractured by injecting water, sand and various chemicals into it at very high pressure. Several million gallons of fresh water is needed for such ' fracking' activity at any one site. 

Shashikant Yadav, Gopal K Sarangi and M P Ram Mohan in an essay in the Economic and Political Weekly explain the environmental concerns that shale gas production poses in India.

Regarding the guidelines for environmental management released by the government -

Further, the guidelines mention that water management is one of the key concerns. They state that the major and prime difference being in the hydraulic fracturing technologies requiring a large volume of water; the activities are likely to deplete water sources and cause pollution due to the disposal of produced water. However, instead of dealing with the water-specific issues, the guidelines (apart from explaining existing provisions) stated that the generic environment clearance process adopted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) will suffice to ascertain water-related issues posed by fracking. But, MoEFCC has not laid down any specific guidelines, policies, or manuals differentiating between conventional and unconventional gases to grant environment clearance.  More recently, despite the gaps, on 1 August, 2018, the cabinet approved a policy allowing companies to exploit shale gas in contract areas that were primarily allocated to exploit conventional gas.

..and this in the context of the ambiguous legal framework surrounding groundwater -

Considering the limited water legislation in India, the implementation of fracking may result in geopolitical and legislative complexities. For instance, shale rocks are usually adjacent to rocks containing useable/drinking water known as “aquifers.” While implementing the hydraulic fracking, the shale fluid can easily penetrate to aquifers leading to groundwater contamination. This contamination may result in methane-poisoning of water used for drinking and irrigational purposes. To avoid such contamination, as per industry standards, a project proponent must maintain a distance of 600 metres between aquifers and fracture zones (Davies et al 2012).

The Indian water legal regime is far away to make such specific observations, as aquifers are not defined in any of the Indian environmental regulatory or legal regime leading to a free pass for unregulated mixing of shale fluid and aquifers. Moreover, the landless have no right to groundwater, and accordingly peasants and tribal communities who have no ownership rights over land have no right on groundwater. Also, a project proponent may easily exploit groundwater while implementing the hydraulic fracking process with none or limited accountability of their actions.  In such a situation, the intent of “Public Trust Doctrine” is defeated, and the precautionary principle will be non-implementable.

Open Access.

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