According to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act of 1957 (MMDR Act), the safety zone at the outside boundary of a conventional mining lease area is a 7.5-meter-wide strip. This zone must be maintained as a green belt, where plantations must be established, or natural regeneration must be allowed to occur. The safety zone aims to protect the environment from the negative effects of mining operations, such as sediment, noise, and water pollution.
The Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has issued several guidelines for the Administration of Safety Zones in Mining Leases, outlining the safety zone standards. According to these guidelines, the safety zone must be designated and walled, and no mining or other operations are permitted therein. Furthermore, the standards require the user agency (the company mining the minerals) to prepare a management strategy for the safety zone. This strategy should include environmental preservation measures such as the planting of trees and vegetation.
Recently, the Directorate General of Hydrocarbon and Oil India Limited has sought clarification on whether this safety zone is applicable in the case of Oil and Gas proposals and Petroleum Mining Leases (PML).
Understanding the Clarification
- Consideration of PML Characteristics: The Ministry concluded that enforcing a safety zone surrounding the entire PML area, as mandated by the MMDR Act for conventional mining leases, is impractical.
- Challenges in demarcation: User Agencies faces a significant challenge in defining the boundaries of PMLs, which can extend over thousands of square kilometers. This specific issue concerns the adherence to the MoEF&CC safety zone standards.
- Adherence to Safety Norms: Despite the difficulties involved with demarcation and the potentially disastrous repercussions of mineral oil extraction, the Ministry emphasizes the need to follow security regulations.
- Applicable Rules and Regulations: Instead of constructing a safety zone encircling the entire PML, the clarification advises that user agencies follow the safety standards provided in the Petroleum and Natural Gas (Safety in Offshore Operations) Rules, 2008.
- Designation of Safety Zones in Impact Areas: According to the Ministry directive, a safety zone consisting of a 7.5-meter-wide strip along the interior boundary of impact areas of drilling boreholes or oil well pads must be maintained. It is recommended that user agencies consider this safety zone to be a green belt. This involves cultivating land or allowing organic regrowth to occur within the designated strip.
- Additional Responsibilities in Hazardous Zones: The upkeep of hazardous zones beyond the 7.5-meter safety zone is the responsibility of user agencies involved in the transportation or extraction of mineral oil. Boreholes, oil pads, pipelines, and other ancillary infrastructure are included in these zones. The clarification explicitly refers to the norms and rules created under the Oilfields (Regulation and Development) Act of 1948, which strengthens user agencies’ legal responsibilities concerning mineral oil transportation and mining.
The clarification regarding the PML safety zone requirement strikes a balance between environmental protection and the practical challenges faced by the oil and gas industry. Because of the large scope of PMLs and the difficulties in defining their boundaries, a more targeted approach has been adopted, focusing on the impact zones formed by oil well platforms and drilling boreholes. This approach ensures that adequate safety measures are implemented in areas susceptible to environmental hazards without the unrealistic expectation of fencing the entire PML area. Further, ensuring compliance with the Petroleum and Natural Gas (Safety in Offshore Operations) Rules, 2008 emphasizes the importance of safety standards in the petroleum and gas sector.
The clarification provides multiple critical topics that deserve further consideration by the community and industry stakeholders:
- Defining the Impact Zone: The clarification defines the impact zone as a circular area with a 50-meter radius centered on the bore shaft or well pad. This definition, however, may not sufficiently reflect the possible environmental impact of drilling activities, particularly in sensitive ecosystems. A more refined method for identifying the impact zone may be required.
- Safety Zone Maintenance: The responsibility for maintaining the safety zone has been given to the user agency. However, because of the vastness of particular PMLs, user agencies may find it challenging to efficiently monitor and maintain the safety zone. Alternative safety zone management strategies, such as community engagement or third-party oversight, may be worth exploring.
- Balancing Safety and Economic Viability: The requirement for safety zones can raise the cost of oil and gas operations, reducing their economic viability. It could be useful to discuss potential cost-sharing methods or to look at alternative safety measures that are both efficient and cost-effective.
Obtaining clarity on the PML safety zone requirement reflects an equal consideration of environmental safeguards as well as the challenges faced by the oil and gas industry. Recognizing the impracticality of encircling the entire PML area with a safety zone, adequate safety measures have been established by focusing on impact zones surrounding drilling boreholes and oil well sites. The clarification specifies that user agencies in hazardous zones have additional responsibility in addition to highlighting the importance of safety standards. It will be important to see and examine the discussions of the community and the industry stakeholders in implementing these measures.
 https://forestsclearance.nic.in/writereaddata/public_display/schemes/875875603$Guidelines.pdf; https://forestsclearance.nic.in/writereaddata/public_display/schemes/1654182415$Safety%20Zone.pdf.