Chennai: Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa halted the coal bed methane project in the southern districts of the state after farmers said it could devastate agricultural land.

The Great Eastern Energy Corp. Ltd (GEECL) project was awarded in July 2010 during the previous Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) regime. The exploration work covers seven taluks in Thanjavur and Tiruvarur districts.

A committee has been appointed to file a report on the project in three months, said a government press release. The government will take a decision based on the committee’s report.

“Our block in Mannargudi is awaiting the Consent to Establish from the Tamil Nadu Government in order to start work. We have not started any work in the block," said the company spokesperson."

The committee will have representatives from Anna University, the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, besides officials from the Public Works Department, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corp.

“Though the Union ministry for environment and forests have given its clearance, it is the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board that has to give clearance for drilling deep wells. TNPCB has not given its clearance to the applications by GEECL so far," said Jayalalithaa.

Referring to GEECL’s report, which said the coal bed methane in Thanjavur and Thiruvarur was similar to that in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana in the US, Jayalalithaa said, “One of the reports on the project said some of the chemicals used to extract coal bed methane are toxic, soluble in water and have radiation."

The release also referred to the steps taken by her government to implement a plan to protect the Cauvery delta areas from sea water intrusion, with Rs1,500 crore World Bank aid.

“There are chances of sea water entering farming lands in Cauvery Delta areas due to climate change in the future in addition to the recent doubts raised by farmers. Hence the coal bed methane project in Thanjavur and Thiruvarur districts can be allowed only after we are convinced that the project will not affect the farmers," she said.

“We have received the Environment clearance from the Union Ministry for Environment and Forests (MOEF) after going through the strict parameters laid down by ministry and clearance from its Expert Appraisal Committee, which reviewed all aspects in totality," said the company spokesperson.

In 2010, the Central government had signed a production sharing agreement with GEECL on extracting coal bed methane.

It is pertinent to note that in 2010, further to the fourth round of coal bed methane bidding, the Centre awarded the block to GEECL, to explore and produce coal bed methane from 667 sq m area in Mannargudi region of Tamil Nadu, said GEECL press release.

At the central government’s bidding, the DMK regime had in January 2011 given a petroleum exploration licence to GEECL and said various government departments would help in the laying of pipelines and getting environmental clearance for the project, Jayalalithaa said.

Jayalalithaa said the environment ministry had not answered any of the doubts raised during public hearings last year in both the districts and had instead given clearance to GEECL on 12 September last year.

PTI contributed to this story.

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