Bangladesh’s untapped coal potential

Mark Muller* with Roger Moody** The Daily Star, June 2, 2009

THE Bangladesh Ministry of Power and Energy recently asserted that the country must more than double delivered power within the next five years (from around 4,000 MW to 9,000 MW per day). With the installation and operation of four new coal-fired power stations, it is claimed that the current daily gap between generation and demand would be reduced to 1,500 MW.

According to Bangladesh’s National Energy Policy 2004 (quoted in The Independent, May 9) total coal reserves are 2,527 million tonnes, contained in four fields: Barapukuria with around 300 million tonnes; Phulbari with 400 million tonnes; Jamalganj containing 1,000 million tons, and 450 million tonnes at Khalaspir. Of these resources, 492 million tonnes are estimated to be recoverable by mining.

However, the key questions are: how much of this coal, and of what quality, is actually usable; and when would it realistically be available to generate electricity? This is something that the proposed joint feasibility study between government and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) will hopefully address. But it’s not yet known how long it will take to complete this study. Nor can we anticipate any conclusions it might make concerning the economic, social and environmental costs contingent on hugely increasing Bangladesh’s dependency on coal over the coming years.

The mining recovery estimate seems highly optimistic. Mark Muller, as an experienced mining geophysicist, recently carried out an independent technical review of Bangladesh’s coal reserves. Based on existing surveys, he concluded that they amount to between 3,200 and 4,700 million tonnes, using the most optimistic figures found.

These reserves appear sufficient to close the gap markedly between current power generation and predicted requirements. However, coal-seam depth, thickness and separation are the primary geological factors that determine the appropriate extraction method. Many seams will not, in fact, be amenable to extraction at all using currently available mining methods.

Bangladesh’s only operating coalmine, at Barapukuria, has so far delivered less than 3 million tonnes. This is despite the 1992 projection that it would be able to produce 60 million tonnes. Six years later, in 1998, and following severe flooding, that target was cut in half to 30 million tonnes.

As is well known, the mine’s impacts at the surface have been devastating. Land subsidence of between 0.6-0.9 m has been reported over an area of approximately 1.2 square kilometres; the water-table has dropped, leaving commonly-used reservoirs dry in 15 villages; and at least 81 houses have developed cracks. Untreated water (acknowledged by the mining company to contain phosphorous, arsenic and magnesium) is passing through canals in farming areas.

The Phulbari open-cast project is beset by heated debate over its likely impacts on local communities, its dependence on a foreign company, and by major doubts about its economic viability, particularly if the mine isn’t to rely on exporting most of the coal it produces. Last year, Roger Moody performed an in-depth critique of these aspects of the proposed Phulbari mine.

This leaves the hardly-investigated Khalaspir field, and Jamalganj, cited by the ministry as potentially the largest source of coal, comprising more than a third of the country’s “cache.” However, our research — now backed by an article in the May 21 issue of Energy and Power — strongly suggests that the majority of the Jamalganj resource is too deep to be mined: 96% of it is deeper than 700 m.

Moreover, given the lead-time required to bring any of these three deposits into commercial operation and start producing electricity from power plants, the claim that coal could reduce Bangladesh’s shortfall by around 3,500 MW within the next five years seems terribly over-optimistic.

This is not to say that coal should be abandoned altogether. On the contrary, our research has identified two potential sources of coal-generated energy that have four significant virtues. They are comparatively cheap, can deliver power to nearby power stations, are relatively clean in terms of pollution emissions; and they don’t necessitate the disturbances of land and people that are associated with conventional mining.

These technologies — Coal Bed Methane (CBM) and Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) — have already proved viable in several countries, including the USA, Canada, China, Australia, South Africa and Uzbekistan, with pilot projects now underway in the UK, Spain and Belgium.

We don’t claim that CBM and UCG will solve all Bangladesh’s energy problems; nor that they are “trouble free.” They can have adverse impacts on land and water, interrupt agriculture, and be unsightly. There’s also little doubt that they deliver less energy than the coal seams from which they derive, if those deposits are efficiently mined. Yet the energy return from UCG can be as high as 75% of that delivered directly by coal.

Coal-seams not accessible by mining are well within reach of both CBM and UCG, and can add significantly to the recoverable resource. (Again, this conclusion is supported by the May 21 issue of Energy and Power). Their surface impact, and that on hydrology, is significantly lower than with mining. Loss of valuable agricultural land is greatly reduced. The need for solid waste-rock and coal-ash management on the surface is entirely removed. There is no subsidence risk at all for CBM, and little for deep-seam UCG (although the UCG subsidence risk for shallow seams needs to be carefully managed).

In addition, a CBM project could deliver electrical power output in half the time required for mining — as little as five years from starting a feasibility drilling program and study.

Apart from two studies — one carried out by M.B. Imam, M. Rahman, and S.H. Akhter in 2002 at Jamalganj; and the other at Barapukuria by M.R. Islam and D. Hayashi in 2008 — no concerted investigation has yet been undertaken into the potential of these two technologies for Bangladesh. Nor — despite the Asian Development Bank recently listing CBM as a “clean development” mechanism — are these methods currently being considered as part of the country’s future “energy mix.”

In conclusion, we want to emphasise that, even where Bangladesh’s coal reserves appear to be mineable, there are compelling reasons why the alternatives should now be urgently investigated. This should be done before hasty and irrevocable decisions are taken which expose citizens to further disasters like Barapukuria.

Read Mark Muller’s study, entitledHow coal may produce energy without being mined” 

Read Roger Moody’s critique of the Phulbari project: Phulbari Coal: A Perilous Project

*Mark Muller has a Ph.D. in geophysics and 20 years of mining industry and research experience.

**Roger Moody is an international consultant on the social and environmental impacts of mining.

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