In an attempt to fast-track coal production, the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) has decided to allow companies with mining leases to expand production by 25% over the initially approved plan, without having to secure a fresh environment clearance (EC) from the ministry.
The move will help companies avoid the cumbersome process of getting EC approvals — which includes public hearings that may take up to three years — for their first expansion. For subsequent expansions, however, a new EC will be required.
The move comes at a time when coal shortage has started impacting the progress of power projects worth 25,000 MW up for commissioning in the next few years.
The decision will help the country's largest coal producer Coal India (CIL) to quickly enhance production from its existing coal blocks as production from new blocks takes four to five years. Green clearances have held up production from over 240 mines of CIL, preventing it from raising raise production on a fast-track basis.
As per the recent decision of the environment ministry, the environment appraisal committee (EAC) could consider “exempting public hearing for capacity expansion proposals of existing coal mining projects... which are for one-time capacity expansion of up to 25% of the existing mining operation, within the existing mine lease area”.
“Such an exemption will be considered for those expansion projects which have obtained prior EC and have undergone public hearing during the process of obtaining EC,” said the environment ministry in an office memorandum adding there should be no additional mine lease area involved and there was no change in the mining method (underground to opencast). The public hearing process is the main hurdle for giving environment clearance to projects that otherwise could be completed within days.
Public hearing is mandatory for environmental clearances to ascertain concerns of affected persons. It is conducted by the state pollution control board.
It is supposed to be completed within 45 days from the date of receipt of the request letter from the applicant, but often the process takes much longer. Normally, the process is adopted while giving a fresh mining lease.
However, the 25% expansion in production capacity is subject to a ceiling of 2 MTPA of additional production where the transportation of the additional production is proposed by road and 5 MTPA if transportation is by the means of a conveyor or rail.
In fact, the inter-ministerial consultations on the MMDR Bill had earlier revealed that companies would have to take recourse to public hearing a year before their mining lease lapses. The mines ministry also wanted a third party audit of measures taken by companies towards complying with the EC process. In case of expansion of existing mines, the process will be mandatory only if the project involves taking up the mine capacity by 25%.
“I do not see the rationale of conducting public hearing and going through cumbersome clearance process all over again for companies that had already taken these while getting new mining leases. This would only delay projects,” said an official of the a public sector company asking not to be named.
“There are various matters under consideration and increasing capacity has an environmental impact due to which matters get jumbled up which cause delays. Earlier, no clarity had come from the MoEF but this move will impact a huge quantity of coal production,” said a coal ministry official.