Vol. 5 Num 221 Wed. January 05, 2005  

Corporate environmental whitewash

There is much debate as to the general safety of oil and gas operations in developing countries, where safety standards are often eroded or ignored. Oil companies make much of their "accident-free days" in their promotional materials, but in truth there is no such thing as 100 percent safety. Accidents still happen, as the Hon. Minister Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan might agree after his week-long stay in hospital for injuries sustained in a "minor" gas explosion in Norshingdi on December 24.

Under such circumstances, many believe that nature conservation cannot be safely or sustainably carried out on the same site as oil and gas activities. Even supposedly lower-risk procedures, such as underground gas pipelines, may gradually destroy land and water for years after the pipeline has been installed. In addition to the ever-present fire hazards, soil erosion due to digging and land clearing, and water contamination from welding and coatings on the pipes, are major unseen threats from these activities.

For these reasons and others, there was much opposition from conservationists nationwide when in May 2004, the multinational energy giant Unocal proposed a route for a gas pipeline that would pass through two parts of Lawachhara National Park (NP) in Srimongol, Sylhet. Lawachhara is one of our country's few areas designated expressly for nature conservation. The park is especially significant for Bangladesh because we have the world's lowest level of such protected areas, and one of the lowest levels of forest cover.

Under the Wildlife (Preservation)(Amendment) Act of 1974, national parks are areas of "outstanding scenic and natural beauty" whose purpose is the "protection and preservation of scenery, flora and fauna in the natural state, to which access for public recreation and education and research may be allowed." By this law and under the Bangladesh Forest Act of 1927, commercial activities are not permitted within national parks. Clearing or breaking up land for mining is also prohibited, as is disturbing wildlife and their breeding places within one mile of park boundaries. How is any of this compatible with the Unocal pipeline project?

The debate between Unocal and the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) over permission for the pipeline went on for some months. In September 2004, environmental groups appealed to the PM against the pipeline, and she appeared to agree. The MoEF was adamantly against putting the park in potential danger, especially since the Magurchhara gas explosion had destroyed parts of Lawachhara NP in 1997. It seemed for a time that our right-thinking officials had the upper hand, and that proper procedure was to be maintained.

When a company whose industry is deemed to have a "significant adverse environmental impact" selects a new site for work, the Department of Environment (DoE) requires that the company conduct two studies before site clearance can be granted. The first is an Initial Environmental Examination (IEE), which is a preliminary report that basically identifies the areas where further investigation is needed. The second report is a more detailed study called an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which carefully analyses all options and their potential impacts on the environment.

The IEE submitted by Unocal to the DoE is dated October 2004. However, at least one newspaper report states that Unocal had already received approval for the pipeline project from the Bangladesh government by October 2. The move was mysteriously premature, as necessary procedures had not yet been completed. Under Bangladeshi law, both an IEE and an EIA are mandatory for high-risk activities. Yet immediately upon submission of only the preliminary report without the detailed study, Unocal had already secured permission to cut through a national park that is specially protected from commercial activities by law.

How was this possible? There is little reliable baseline data on Lawachhara to begin with. Apparently Unocal's analysts spent only about 3 months collecting field data for the IEE, so it is not surprising that the report added little new information. How has Unocal passed its proposal so rapidly, when this diverse and complex site is so poorly understood? We cannot afford such haste and lack of care when it is our country's last forests at stake.

An IEE alone cannot be the basis for any important decisions, particularly where hazardous industries are involved. The Unocal IEE overlooked some serious issues, and yet even in October there was high confidence that permission would be granted. The big giveaway as to what was really going on is the last sentence of the final page: "Considering the findings of the IEE Report, the DoE may approve the Terms of Reference for the EIA Report and issue a Site Clearance Certificate at an earlier date in favor of Unocal Bangladesh."

This sentence conveys all the assurance of a done deal, yet its assumptions are baseless: on closer study the IEE hardly justifies early clearance. Many issues were omitted that are obvious to experts and amateurs alike. The entire document blurs key issues and highlights others selectively: For example, the fact that the forest is a National Park and protected under law, is de-emphasised by repeatedly calling it a "Reserve Forest." On the other hand, gaps in environmental law that can be exploited to Unocal's benefit are mentioned several times. Pains are taken to convince the reader that the activity is probably legal, low-impact, and harmless. The effects of the project are described, without explanation, as temporary and ranging from minor to moderate. Long-term impacts such as fire hazards, leakage, and gas pilferage during the post-installation period have also been ignored.

It is as though the text was not written as part of decision-making to help guide the process, but rather that it was written after the decisions were already made, and then tailored to validate those choices. For example, one pat excuse for the most "environmentally friendly" route states that a longer pipeline disturbs more "environmental area." Conveniently, this is also the cheapest route, as there is less pipe used. What is never made clear is that not all areas are the same: the bigger area in question is privately owned tea plantations and crop fields, while the smaller route is rich forest in a nationally protected area. This is not to say that private lands are less important. To their owners, they certainly are. But as citizens, we all own our National Parks -- and the Forest Department of the MoEF has been charged to manage them.

Has Unocal received special permission or treatment? Possibly. The strategy of gaining rapid site clearance without adequate damage assessments is not new to the oil industry. British Petroleum is currently being investigated for violating international standards in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan project. BP secured emergency powers to speed up the land acquisition process, and made misleading claims in its EIA. Interestingly, it turns out that Unocal is also one of the 10 shareholders in this highly controversial project.

The Lawachara project continues at top speed. What's the big rush, anyway? Eid shopping? The way things are looking, our biggest qurbaani this Eid will be Lawachhara National Park and everything that lives in it. The final detailed report, the EIA, was only given to the DoE on December 9, yet Unocal is preparing to begin operations in the forest this month. The public has hardly had a chance to view the EIA, even though for a site of national value, EIA rules require a high level of public consultation. Even in the initial report, what Unocal termed "public consultation" was an interview of 20 people, mostly tea garden staff rather than forest dwellers, and not one of whom had been affected in the Magurchhara explosion!

What is going on? Corporate environmental management doesn't mean handing out free passes to any company that completes the procedures in any way it likes, and then gives a few hundred trees to the locals. That is good public relations, not good environmental management. A clean image is reflected in a company's sound operational practices, not how much flood relief it doles out. What's a few thousand dollars for flood relief, when there are millions to be saved by putting the pipeline through the forest?

The DoE must recognise this difference. It must carry out critical evaluations of the reports submitted, and it must recognise that some places are always off-limits to development, no matter how small or seemingly harmless the proposed activity. It must allow for adequate public consultation on the matter. The MoEF must uphold the law and protect our dwindling wilderness. The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources cannot use the current gas crisis, a monster of its own making, as an excuse to destroy forests and biodiversity.

Lawachhara NP is one of three patches of forest that are all that remain of the forest habitat that once covered Sylhet. Despite its small size and the fact that it is under many forms of disturbance, it still maintains a remarkably diverse flora and fauna, including several species that are rare or endangered. Even our children recognise its value -- a young writer to Rising Stars wrote of her recent visit to Lawachhara: "I wish that the animals in the forest never become extinct and that the forest remains beautiful."

Aside from the fact that the proposed route is technically illegal, we are taking an enormous risk by allowing this pipeline to proceed. If it is damaged in any way, that damage is forever.

Adding new threats in an already vulnerable situation is not something we can afford to do. If one day we end up with no undeveloped spaces whatsoever, if we end up in a land devoid of any natural beauty, if only the rich can afford to travel abroad and see the wonders that other nations have wisely preserved, then it will be because of our own shortsightedness and failure to protect that which is priceless. Only our children will inherit our mistakes.

SM Abdur Rahman is a researcher and columnist.