ONGC steps on the gas, locals put brakes

ONGC steps on the gas, locals put brakes

Is it conventional oil and natural gas wells? Or methane drills? Or pre-exploration tests for shale gas? 

These are the questions gnawing at the minds of Cauvery basin farmers in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts. For now, they have forgotten water release from Karnataka’s dams. The flavour of the season, at least among farmer-activists and anti-exploration agitators, is methane and shale gas. 

Last year, the Cauvery delta witnessed incessant protests, second only to massive river water dispute-related rallies in terms of size and intensity, as the news spread about plans by Great Eastern Energy Corporation (GEECL) to explore and extract coal-bed methane.With fears ranging from pollution and groundwater contamination to complete destruction of fertile farmlands, the company was forced to wind up its operations in December 2014. 

Now coal-bed is more or less the past, as far as the delta is concerned.But shale gas? “It’s coal bed methane’s cousin and Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) has taken the place of GEECL,” said activist and writer Marutham Goki. “They are talking about sinking wells, fracturing rocks using explosives and extracting shale gas trapped in the rock bed. The language and tech-terms they use are frighteningly similar to methane,” Goki told TOI. 

Despite a case pending before the national green tribunal, exploratory drilling was happening in at least 30 locations -in the nights without the locals being informed. “The secrecy triggered mistrust of ONGC,” a farmerforum functionary said. 

Public sector giant ONGC is not an alien to people in the region. Its exploratory works and oil wells in the region are nearly half-a-century old. “During the past 50 years, we have established 3 5 oil and gas fields in Tamil Nadu,” C N S Kumar, deputy general manager incharge of ONGC’s corporate communications, told TOI, adding that the firm produces 700 tons of oil and extracts 3.8 million cubic metres of natural gas per day . “Last financial year alone we contributed `300 as royalty and `110 crore as VAT to Tamil Nadu government,” he said. 

Kumar told TOI that ONGC had no ongoing shale gas exploration works in the Cauvery delta region, but said the Indian government has decided to try it out elsewhere -mostly in Damodhar Valley of West Bengal, and some in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. “Shale gas is a gamechanger. It has made natural gas available in plenty, pushing down global crude prices,” Kumar said, defending India’s efforts to tap shale gas. 

If all is so well for ONGC in the delta region, why are there agitations happening almost every day, and cases being fought in green tribunals and courts? Why are district authorities unable to conduct many of their public hearings and peace committee meetings without protests? Many meetings have simply been adjourned to another date. 

ONGC has been unable to convince residents of the relevance and usefulness of these explorations. “The presence of ONGC in our backyard has not helped us all these years. No schools, no hospitals nor NLC-type townships. A Navaratna company it may be, but what have we gained?” asks Kurichimalai panchayat president K M Arivudai Nambi of Naduvakalappal where ONGC has a facility. “We hear they have paid crores to government as royalty and VAT. If they could generate so much resources from our lands, they should have done a lot to our people. We will take this up with them,” he said. 

A Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) activist, M S Rajendran of Keelathanallur, near Koil Kalappal, too echoed the views. “All we got was `3.9 lakh for a compound wall for a government higher secondary school last year. When we requested a cycle stand shed for the school, they said it may not be possible immediately ,” he said. “Even though our roads have been damaged due to heavy duty vehicles of ONGC, they have not repaired it even once,” he added. 

Narimanam and Kalappal regions, which have seen ONGC activities for 50 years, are located some 20km from Vikramapandiyam and Kuthalam regions where the PSU giant seeks to expand. “With nothing much to show as benefits for people near its old wells, ONGC is finding it tough to convince residents and landowners in the new areas to part with their lands and lend their cooperation,” said an anti-methane activist. 

ONGC’s Kumar, however, said the taxes and royalty the company pays to state government should be taken into account. “We cannot take over the duties of the government. Direct benefits in a visible manner can be provided only by the government. We on our part have spent about `3.9 crore from out of our corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds for various works,” Kumar said. 

For locals, that’s clearly not enough.

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