Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Coal in dense forest areas can be declared ‘strategic energy reserve': MoEF

NEW DELHI: If coal mining is allowed in heavily forested areas today, it could deprive the country of a strategic energy reserve for the future, according to the Environment Ministry. It would also go against the Forest Conservation Act, invite judicial intervention, hurt biodiversity and discourage the development of coal technology.

These are among the arsenal of arguments unsheathed by the Ministry to counter the Coal Ministry's complaints, even as a Group of Ministers gets set to resolve the tussle over the “Go, No-go” classification of coal blocks in forested areas. The classification of nine major coalfields was the result of a study conducted jointly by both Ministries, but the Coal Ministry now objects to the Environment Ministry using the classification to ultimately declare about 18 per cent of coal blocks in the area out of bounds for mining.

In its comments – a copy of which is available with The Hindu – on the Coal Ministry's draft note submitted to the Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure last month, the Environment Ministry points out that it has already made major compromises to its original position.

The original classification meant that of the 582 coal blocks surveyed, 68 per cent of blocks – comprising 57 per cent of the area – fell into the “Go” category. However, “on the request of the Ministry of Coal and advice from the Prime Minister's Office,” the classification was “re-examined.” Under the revised parameters, an additional 29 blocks were moved out the “No-go” category, while 24 more blocks had been granted permission for mining even before the study. Redefining boundaries allowed 28 more blocks to come into the “Go” category.

At the end of this exercise, only 105 blocks – that is, 18 per cent – comprising about 23 per cent of the total area will be considered out of bounds, the note points out, adding that coal from “Go” areas may anyway be “sufficient to meet current demand.”

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has been insistent that considering proposals in “No-go” areas was impossible as it would amount to a violation of the Forest Conservation Act.

However, the language of his Ministry's note indicates a possible softening of that position, with an admission that the classification was merely a “prioritisation” without any “legal enforcement/basis”. It adds that it has been “initially agreed that as of now,” the Ministry will not consider proposals in the “No-go” areas.

Open to considerations

This seems to mean that the Ministry is open to such considerations in the future. Indeed, the note argues that “it may be prudent to declare the coal available in [No-go] areas as the strategic energy reserve – to be utilised in the last resort to meet urgent safety and security needs of the country, in a scenario where all other fossil fuel reserves have already been exhausted and alternate sources of energy are either not available or are inadequate to meet bare minimum energy needs for the country.”

The note also warns that setting a precedent in the case of coal to allow mining in heavily forested areas, and effectively issue forest clearances for entire coal fields in toto, may “open the floodgates” with other Ministries and sectors demanding the same. This would cause irreparable damage to the forest and wildlife wealth of the country and defeat the very purpose of the Forest Conservation Act, warned the Environment Ministry.

Source: The Hindu : National : Coal in dense forest areas can be declared ‘strategic energy reserve': MoEF

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