Vol. 5 Num 1088 Sat. June 23, 2007  

Needed a correct overall energy strategy

The Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN), a global network of pro-environment Bangladeshis, is alarmed by recent news reports indicating that the government is moving toward adoption of a coal policy that was allegedly drafted by a private firm, and geared toward open-pit coal mining.

BEN takes serious exception to this type of coal policy, and the method in which it was formulated, and instead urges the government to entrust a reputed national institution or a committee with the task of preparing the draft, which would then be put for open national discourse before adoption.

BEN is aware that coal can potentially be an important part of Bangladesh's overall energy plan. However, BEN wants to draw attention to the fact that, compared to natural gas, coal is a “dirty” fuel which produces many noxious gases, and, unless appropriate scrubbing technologies are in place, use of coal can cause serious pollution and health hazards.

More importantly, unlike that of gas, extraction and use of coal is fraught with serious dangers and challenges. International experience shows the devastation that open-pit coal mining can cause to the site areas.

Many members of BEN and its energy panel have direct experience of the damage that can be caused, and the enormous sums of money that are now being spent in order to redress some of this damage.

In Bangladesh, coal mining is more hazardous and challenging because of several reasons:

High population density: Nowhere in the world are coalmines operated in such densely populated areas, as they are in Bangladesh. The high density implies that a large number of people will have to be uprooted from their ancestral homesteads and villages, a step that will entail huge human costs. To complicate the problem, Bangladesh hardly has any unpopulated area where the displaced people can be suitably resettled.

High opportunity cost of land: The high density of population is related to the fertile and productive nature of the land, usually producing three crops in a year. Mining will render the area uncultivable, thus entailing very high opportunity costs.

Rivers and underground water table: Bangladesh's ubiquitous river system and underground water table make de-watering of pits, a necessary condition for mining, extremely challenging, and make spillover of the toxic water of the mine onto the neighbouring water and land areas almost inevitable.

To compound the difficulty, intense pumping to de-water the pits makes the neighbouring areas dry, rendering the land unsuitable for cultivation and causing dearth of water necessary for drinking and other household purposes. The adverse consequences of open-pit coal mining will, therefore, not remain limited to the mining area only, and will be felt far and wide.

In view of the above, it is puzzling why the government wants to adopt a coal policy geared toward handing over the coal deposits to foreign companies for extraction and export, in exchange for very little financial gain and huge economic, human, and environmental cost. Instead of the proposed coal policy, BEN has some recommendations:

Concentrate, for now, on gas: To overcome the current power crisis, and to meet the energy demands in the near future, Bangladesh may concentrate on proper use of the country's gas resources. It is a shame that huge amounts of gas from the Titas gas field got burnt, and are still getting burnt, due to lack of proper maintenance of the gas wells.

It is also amazing that, when Bangladesh herself has a desperate need for energy, the government is reportedly considering foreign investment proposals that are, in effect, proposals to export away Bangladesh's gas in embodied form (such as fertiliser in case of Kafco-2 and steel and fertiliser in case of the Tata investment proposal).

In view of the country's limited proven gas reserve, the government should make an unequivocal decision not to entertain any project involving export of gas, either raw or in embodied form. It may also consider terminating Kafco to eliminate the financial hemorrhage that, according to most experts, this project is causing, and to use the saved gas to produce power so desperately needed by the country now.

By ensuring proper use of gas, the country can buy some more time before needing to resort to using coal. Bangladesh should also enhance gas exploration efforts, and develop her own capability for doing so.

Develop national mining capability: Bangladesh may use the time (gained by using gas) to develop technological and manpower capability for mining coal. To this end, Bangladesh may make the best use of the already in operation Boropukuria coal mine to learn about closed pit coal mining in Bangladesh geological settings.

This learning may also help Bangladesh to understand the challenges and consequences involved in open-pit coal mining in the country. Once the requisite capability is developed, Bangladesh will be able to retain and use 100 percent of her coal, rather than giving up most of it to foreign companies as is reportedly envisaged by the draft coal policy.

Develop necessary regulatory framework: Bangladesh may use the time gained (by using gas meanwhile) to prepare in several other ways for coal extraction and use, as and when that becomes necessary in future. One of these concerns development of the appropriate regulatory framework necessary to make coal extraction as little damaging to the area, people, and the environment, as possible. This may require setting up of appropriate national institutions, which may thoroughly study and use international experience relevant for Bangladesh.

Take into account the possibility of alternative, non-mining methods of coal energy extraction: In considering how to benefit from the coal deposits, Bangladesh also needs to keep the options regarding other superior alternative methods open. Among these are:

(i) Conversion of coal into liquid.

(ii) Coal gasification.

(iii) Coal-bed methane extraction etc.

These may be used either singly or in combination. Some of these methods can provide higher energy efficiency. It may be noted that burning of coal as gas is much better than burning coal directly, because of substantially less CO2 emission. In some of these processes the CO2 stays in liquid form, which can then be captured easily, preventing it from escaping into the atmosphere, and, in this way, CO2 can also be contained.

Assess/develop technologies for pollution free use of coal: Before plunging into coal extraction, Bangladesh also needs to develop familiarity with clean-coal technologies that will be necessary for pollution-free use of coal.

Develop national consensus and win consent of the people to be affected directly:

Most importantly, Bangladesh must develop a national consensus and obtain the consent of the local people who will be uprooted, before contemplating coal extraction, particularly through open-pit coal mining.

The Phulbari uprising of 2006 has shown that it is neither appropriate nor feasible to force coal mining on an unwilling populace. Such efforts also violate the UN recognised basic human rights of the people living in the areas containing the coal deposits.

The people may accept the human costs of being uprooted from ancestral homelands only when they, in addition to being appropriately compensated and resettled, are convinced that their sufferings will serve the greater national interests.

The rest of the nation will also have to be convinced on this point before they can ask the people of the affected areas to sacrifice. Such conviction will not emerge from drafting a coal policy in secrecy, without a proper dialogue with the local community and the nation.

BEN, therefore, urges the government to rethink its course regarding coal. The coal policy cannot be decided in isolation, and with the interests of foreign companies in mind. Instead, it has to be a part of an integrated, long-term, and comprehensive national energy strategy. There are many national energy experts who are willing to lend their expertise to help the government formulate such a strategy.

The energy experts of Bangladeshi diaspora, as assembled in BEN and its energy panel, are willing to lend their cooperation too. The recent energy report prepared by this panel has been an effort in this direction. They are willing to do more. Together, the people of Bangladesh can definitely formulate an energy strategy on their own, to serve the best interests of the nation.

The writers constitute BEN Energy Panel Dr. Ahmed Badruzzaman (expert on petroleum and nuclear energy, Chair of the panel), Dr. Sarwat Chowdhury (expert on traditional and renewable energy), Golam Kabir (expert on gas and petroleum and former official of PetroBangla), Prof. M. Khalequzzman (Professor of Geology, Lock Haven University, and expert on coal), and Dr. Selim Hannan (expert on petroleum and gas). Opinions expressed are their own and do not necessarily reflect that of their employers.