The agitation of local people against Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tirunelveli district is fresh and Jayalalithaa is wary of triggering another agitation as she prepares for Lok Sabha elections. In the fractured Indian polity, it is the regional leaders who hold key to next government formation at the Centre.
Jayalalithaa today ordered authorities to put on hold the multi-crore Coal Bed Methane (CBM) project to produce gas by Great Eastern Energy Corporation Ltd in Delta districts of Thanjavur and Thiruvarur in the wake of farmers' apprehensions that it would affect agricultural operations. The area is rice bowl of the state.
She has constituted an expert committee comprising academics and government officials to file a report on the project in three months and also ordered officials not to allow any work by the Corporation until government takes a decision based on the committee's report.
Referring to GEECL's report, which said the CBM bed in Thanjavur and Thiruvarur was similar to Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana states in USA, she noted, "One of the reports on the project said some of the chemicals used to extract coal bed methane are toxic, soluble in water and have radiation."
Farmers in Thanjavur and Thiruvarur districts have been opposed to the CBM project as they fear damage to their agricultural activities.
Another reason for Jayalalithaa's decision could be erratic water supply from Cauvery river projects. Every year in summer the state has running battle with Karnataka over release of Cauvery. Due to water shortage the farmers in the Cauvery delta area raise only one crop a year now, instead of three crops.
This yearly uncertainty has forced the farmers to dig deep borewells to supply water to their paddy crop.
On the the Centre's request, previous DMK regime had in January 2011 given the 'Petroleum Exploration Licence' to GEECL and said various government departments would help in laying of pipelines and get environmental clearance to the project, she said.
Jayalalithaa said today the Environment Ministry had not answered any of the doubts raised during public hearings last year in both the districts, which was sent to the Centre, and had instead given clearance to GEECL on September 12, 2012.
What is CBM?
Coal Bed Methane (CBM) is a natural hydrocarbon gas that occurs in beds of coal.
Drilling for CBM usually involves the type of modest size rig used to drill conventional water borewells. Lowering of the hydraulic head over the coal allows methane to come out. The gas from the wells is processed and transported through pipelines to markets.
Nearly 90 percent of all coal reserves cannot be mined under the standard extraction method. CBM is next best alternative. It provides clean-burning fuel; increase substantially the natural gas reserve base; improves safety of coal mining; decrease methane vented to the atmosphere from coal mines that might affect global warming and finally CBM provides a means to use an abundant coal resource that is often too deep to mine.
Additionally, drilling for the methane is a benign operation with extremely low risk of blowout or spill because air is often used instead of drilling mud.
Farmers also suspect that the proposal to develop gas reserves lying below coal seams could be a prelude to lignite mining. They fear that open-cast mining in the block will have a devastating effect on farming operations in the two districts
Mannargudi block forms part of the lignite basin along the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in the Cauvery delta. According to official sources, the lignite reserves in the block are estimated to be around 19,500 million tonnes.
CBM project covers an area of 691 square kilometres with an effective area of 667 sq km, or 66,700 hectares. According to the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons, the estimated gas available in the Mannargudi block is 0.98 trillion cubic feet.
The farmers fear that drilling of core holes and production wells would result in the depletion of groundwater, adversely affecting irrigation sources. Another cause for concern is groundwater salinity due to the intrusion of seawater. The farmers are also increasingly dependent on borewells as Cauvery water supply is not adequate.
What scientists says
Scientists says that unlike conventional natural gas production, CBM production involves a large quantity of water, which is a co-product. This could raise problems relating to the disposal of large volumes of water. Scientists have cautioned that the process could affect shallow groundwater reserves.
Drinking water sourced from the coal bed may also affect human health due to dissolved phenol and arsenic, which are hazardous. The presence of heavy metal in drinking water could result in many diseases.
However, the GEECL had taken advertisements in newspapers and said that it will repeat the "success story of its operations at Raniganj in West Bengal" and that it is committed to improving the environment, employment situation and economy in Mannargudi.
On the disposal of the water produced the company representative, who participated in the public hearing in 2012, had explained that the quantity of water would be 1,350 cubic metres per well and that natural evaporation had been proposed using a solar evaporation pan with a capacity of 1,575 cubic metres and high-density polyethylene lining. The produced water would be reused in the drilling of subsequent test wells.
However, Jayalalithaa would have none of this and decided today to halt the project that would have produced gas and helped the state overcome energy crisis.
(With agencies inputs)