In May 2019, the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) granted its first environment clearance to a private entity for exploring shale gas reserves in West Bengal. This is addition to the 2018 clearance to a state-owned enterprise for exploration in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh.

The Environment Impact Assessment’s (EIA’s) reports of these projects propose fracking in 36 wells (20 in West Bengal, 11 in Gujarat and five in AP) with fresh water requirements of 3.5-6 million litres per activity in each well. The EIA reports clarify that these environmental clearances are sought only for preliminary exploration of shale gas reserves. Nonetheless, the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons (DGH) estimates that the commercial production of shale gas would require multiple fracking activities in each well with water requirement of up to nine million litres per fracking activity. As of today, 56 sites across six States have been identified for fracking, and according to the World Resources Institute, all of them fall under ‘water stress’ zones, having limited supply of fresh water.

Internationally, countries pursuing shale gas production have faced serious water management issues in fracking activities. Fracking has now been banned in Bulgaria, France Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands. Countries that are pursuing shale gas extraction (the US, Argentina, the UK and China), have made fracking-specific water regulations.

The EIA reports seem substantively inadequate, as they do not clearly address fracking-specific water issues. Compounding this, the MoEFCC is also yet to come up with a fracking-specific EIA manual.

Sourcing of water

Fracking involves the creation of fractures/cracks in non-porous, low-permeable rocks by injecting a large amount of water mixed with sand and chemicals (fracking fluid) at very high pressure, allowing shale gas to escape from dense rocks. In the EIA for fracking 20 wells in West Bengal, uniquely, sourcing 3.5 million litres of waste water generated from the oil and gas extraction activities has been proposed. This is very different from the DGH’s suggestion and international experience. The EIA reports for fracking 11 wells in Gujarat and five in AP estimate freshwater requirement up to six million litres per well sourced through “privately owned tanker” and “nearby water sources”, without disclosing any specific sourcing channels. This raises several doubts regarding the potential impact on the local community, drinking water sources, land, etc.

Additionally, the extensive usage of water during fracking generates a considerable amount of ‘flow-back water’, the fracking fluid that returns to the surface once the pressure used to inject the fracking fluid eases out. Studies have reported that the flow-back water is up to 30-40 per cent of the total water used and is reported to have higher contamination than the fracking fluid. Unfortunately, the EIA reports do not mention any specific method to treat or dispose flow-back water, but casually refer to waste-water treatment plants. The United States Environmental Protection Agency in several sites noted fracking-induced methane seeping into drinking water and groundwater sources.

The MoEFCC assesses the suitability of any new project in light of its impact on the environment and overall sustainability by constituting an ‘Expert Appraisal Committee’. The committee raises project-specific ‘Terms of References’ (ToRs) after studying the nature, scale, location, and potential impact of the proposed activities. The project proponent is required to explain the issues raised in ToRs comprehensively.

The DGH has proposed fracking-specific ToRs that the MoEFCC may issue to a project proponent. The ToRs require a project proponent to: disclose adequacy for handling the flow-back water; make and maintain a dedicated website/portal disclosing the water quality data and use of chemicals in fracking fluid; and a fracking-specific community sensitisation plan. Surprisingly, none of these ToRs was taken into consideration by the MoEFCC while granting environmental clearances. Instead, the MoEFCC in the guise of ‘specific’ ToRs issued general terms of reference normally used for conventional oil and gas extraction activities.

Since the water cycle during fracking is more complicated than the conventional oil-and-gas extraction, issuing such common ToRs seems a grossly inadequate application of mind at best. The National Green Tribunal has also expressed concern over such prototypical ToRs.

The way forward

In the pursuit of becoming a natural-gas-based economy, the government has implemented various policies to foster the exploration and production of shale gas. Although the environmental clearances granted to fracking are to carry out exploring shale-gas project, these should not become a prototype for preparing the EIA reports. A considered assessment of risk and benefit based on international experience and specific water management issues in India needs to be undertaken.

The MoEFCC should identify issues of shale-gas fracking activities in each proposed site on the yardstick of the DGH’s fracking-specific ToRs.

Mohan is Associate Professor, IIM-A. Yadav is a legal researcher based in New Delhi. Views are personal.