07/22/2017: In the midst of anti-hydrocarbon protests, the Tamil Nadu government has declared 23,000 hectares across 45 villages as PCPIR. PCPIR stans for Petroleum, Chemical and Petrochemicals Investment Region. Also, the government has allocated INR 11.5 billion to improve road/rail infrastructure.But is this the first time hydrocarbon extractions are happening in Tamil Nadu?
History of Hydrocarbon Extraction
In 1986, the then TN CM M. G. Ramachandran (representing AIADMK) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with ONGC. According to the MoU, MGR gave ONGC the permission to drill the villages Narimanam and Kalappal for hydrocarbon/methane. From there, ONGC expanded to 35 places. Also, ONGC gave royalty to the TN govt for the project.
But what is methane? It’s the hydrocarbon present in 75% of natural gas.
ONGC already started inspecting/exploring TN in 1977 when MGR was CM. His party AIADMK ruled for 29 of the past 41 years while rival DMK ruled only for 12 years.
More Modern Times
On 01/05/2011, the then DMK Treasurer and TN Deputy CM MK Stalin signed an MoU with GEECL (Great Eastern Energy Corporation Limited). According to the MoU, GEECL could produce Coal Bed Methane (CBM) in the Mannargudi area covering the Tiruvarur/Thanjavur districts. GEECL initially proposed to invest INR 1 billion for exploration and commercial viability. And if found favorable, GEECL proposed to invest INR 35 billion on CBM production, which would’ve generated LPG and also direct and indirect employment for the state. Ultimately GEECL withdrew from the project citing non-viability.
For 2014-15, the TN government got a royalty of 3 billion from ONGC for hydrocarbon extraction. From 2012, ONGC has been paying an annual royalty of INR 2.5-3.5 billion along with VAT/sales tax. As a matter of fact, ONGC has paid the TN government INR 18.16 billion as royalty and VAT/sales tax.
Pros of Hydrocarbon Extraction
We get more energy locally, which can power our daily appliances and vehicles. Also, more direct and indirect employment due to extraction. Fuel can become cheaper. It also provides energy quickly and is moderately reliable. In addition, further refining can remove and reduce the impact of impurities such as sulfur impurities.
Cons of Hydrocarbon Extraction
In the event of a complete combustion, water & carbon dioxide are released. This depletes the water table of TN villages, already reeling under severe drought. Furthermore, if hydrocarbon is burned in limited air supply, poisonous carbon monoxide could be released. This gas can’t be detected by smell, but will choke those who inhale it. And if air is totally cut off, carbon could be released as soot & smoke. They could then become respiratory irritants, contribute to global dimming and reflect the sun’s rays back from the earth. Bigger molecules need more oxygen to burn. Oil & coal contain large quantities of sulfur compounds which release sulfur dioxide upon combustion. Sulfur dioxide is an irritant, and if it dissolves in rain, it could lead to acid rain corroding buildings and altering soil pH (power of hydrogen). Furthermore, aggressive conditions could cause the usually non-reactive nitrogen to form nitrogen oxides, which are irritants and also contribute to acid rain.
Why Are the Villagers Protesting After All These Years?
Several reasons lie behind villagers protesting the project. One of them is that groundwater is at a critical low. Several districts are reeling under the worst drought in over a century. Crops have failed in several districts due to no seasonal rainfall and also non-seasonal sudden rains. Unemployment is at an all time high. The ONGC, GAIL and other shell companies assigned to extract hydrocarbon simply don’t intend to compensate the concerned villages. But shouldn’t the concerned companies come out with transparency and try to compensate the farmers and villagers with jobs and/or money, instead of just pushing all the losses on to them with no compensation? Moreover, the handling of the Chennai Oil Spill by the center (more here) and the state increased concerns among the villagers.
Although the hydrocarbon project has its own merits/demerits, the way both the central and state governments handle it gives one enough reason to oppose it, at least for the time being. However, if the center and state do come to a more amicable deal with the villagers, it can be supported.