Police action against marchers

September 3, 2009

Editorial, The Daily Star, 4 September 2009

Peaceful protests must not be subject to such brutality

IT is unquestionably bad practice to prevent people from asserting their democratic right to protest. And the practice gets worse when, in order to quell such protests, the law enforcers resort to a baton charge of the protestors. That precisely is what happened on Wednesday when a procession organized by the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports was pounced upon by the police. As so often happens in such instances of harshness demonstrated by policemen, no fewer than thirty people were left with various degrees of injuries on their persons. Among these thirty were ten policemen. It has been given out that the marchers, who were trying to reach the head offices of Petrobangla in Karwan Bazar to register their disapproval of the lease of three offshore gas fields to foreign companies, ended up vandalizing quite a few vehicles as a result of the police action. Vandalism, of course, is always to be condemned. If some of these protestors resorted to violent action, we cannot but unambiguously tell them they did themselves no service.

That said, though, we must go back to the thought of why peaceful marchers must be impeded by the law enforcers every time they seek to draw attention to some grievances they might wish to voice in the national interest. Over the years, even during the period of some elected governments, it has been observed that the police have demonstrated a degree of vehemence and force while dealing with protestors that has left us all wondering about the responsibilities of the state to those who voice a contrary opinion. In the recent past, we have witnessed the police taking, on some crude and indefensible instructions from the powers that be, nearly everyone on the streets into custody on the assumption that everyone is an agitator. Now, even if there are reasons to feel that law and order could be threatened by a protest march, there are sophisticated ways of handling it rather than adopting a knee-jerk position. A fundamental point about the police handling protests is for them to remain absolutely cool in the face of any provocation. Unfortunately, what they did on Wednesday was anything but cool. Besides, the fact that the anti-lease march was peaceful and was led by a number of prominent citizens should have made the police think twice before taking such action.

The point here is not whether the stand of the marchers regarding the lease of the gas fields is right or wrong. It is one of the law enforcers, in these days of enhanced political and democratic sensibilities, needlessly wielding their truncheons on people who only have a point of view to be conveyed to the government. At a time when an elected government is in office, the sight of citizens beaten to the ground by policemen is nothing less than a scandal. We are then all left feeling ashamed


Phulbari Day Today

August 26, 2009

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, August 26, 2009


Photo: Zakir Kibria

Different socio-political organisations will observe Phulbari Day today in remembrance of the demonstrations against Asia Energy’s planned open-pit mining at Phulbari in Dinajpur on August 26, 2006.

Three people were killed and many were injured when lawmen into protests against at the Phulbari coal field in August 2006.

Four days after the demonstrations, the then BNP-led government on August 30 signed a six-point agreement with protesters, spearheaded by the national committee to protect oil, gas, mineral resources, power and port to expel Asia Energy from Bangladesh and ban open-pit mining.

The committee, however, expressed its dismay at the non-implementation of the agreement as Asia Energy is still active in the country. The national committee and different left-leaning political organisations have chalked up programmes to mark August 26 as Phulbari Day.

The committee will place flowers at Shaheed Smritistambha at Phulbari and hold a rally there. The committee will also place flowers at the Central Shaheed Minar and observe the day in other places.

Jatiya Gana Front will hold a rally and bring out a procession in Muktangon to mark the day. The organisation in a statement said any move for open-pit mining in Bangladesh would be stopped. Samajtantrik Chhatra Front will also bring out a procession on the Dhaka University campus on the occasion demanding expulsion of Asia Energy from Bangladesh.

Further information:

Phulbari Resistance

Phulbari Resistance on Facebook

Tengratila blow-out victims demand full compensation

June 24, 2009

The Daily Star, June 24, 2009

Tengratila Dabi Aday Bastobayon Parishad at a press conference yesterday demanded payment of arrear compensation from Canadian company Niko for the massive damage caused by the blow-out at Tengratila on June 24 of 2005.

The blow-out took place when the Canadian company was conducting a relief well drilling at the remote location in Doarabazar upazila in Sunamganj district to seal the original one, which on January 7 the same year had suffered a huge blow-out.

“We will continue pressing the Niko to clear the arrear compensation to the villagers around. We also demand resuming activities in the gas field and establishment of a 50 MW power plant near the gas field,” said joint convener of the parishad, Nurul Amin, who read out a statement at the press conference at Sylhet Press Club.

The two separate committees formed by the government after the incident mentioned loss worth Tk 746 crore including Tk 85 crore in environmental loss but things have remained unsettled yet. The company did not even pay the total amount of agreed compensation to 616 poor families, who were forced out of their homesteads for months, goes the statement.

The parishad will form a human chain in front of the central Shahid Minar at Chouhatta in Sylhet city today (Wednesday) to press the ‘legitimate’ demands.

The June 24 blow-out at Tengratila caused destruction to huge gas and trees and croplands in the surrounding areas during the following weeks.

Thousands of people had to leave their homesteads as the huge fireball leapt 150 feet over the gas field.

The raging flames took about two months to go down totally.

Still bubbles due to gas emission are marked on the water bodies around and fish in the ponds often die due to the gas leakage, a number of locals said.

Bangladesh’s untapped coal potential

June 3, 2009

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.

New face of an old campaign

May 21, 2009

Tanim Ahmed, NewAge, May 21, 2009

While the economics of an open-pit coalmine are ‘compelling’ compared to those of a shaft mine, neither the government nor any of the advocates have so far carried out a cost-benefit analysis that dismisses dissenters’ reservations and establishes a concrete case for open-pit coal extraction.

THERE is little doubt that Bangladesh’s power sector is in a grave situation. Frequent power outages in any part of Dhaka, and even the preferred and privileged residential areas, are enough to highlight the terrible state of electricity generation. Life outside Dhaka, especially in other cities, must have been downright unbearable during the spell of dry scorching weather. But electricity generation is not just a matter of civic comfort. It has become a necessity and a prerequisite for advancement and economic growth, especially industrial growth.

The mode of electricity generation has indeed been one of the key challenges for any government that was in office for the past few years, especially with the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led government failing miserably. The following bout of a military-controlled interim government did not make things any better either. The bout of power outages, in the meantime, appears to break records every year and reach new heights, or rather new lows. Electricity generation was, therefore, at the forefront in the election agenda with the Awami League rightly blaming its archrivals for their inefficiency and corruption during the last term in office. The Awami League-led government has promised to increase power generation by 5,000 megawatts by the end of its tenure but there does not appear to be much effort to translate the promise into reality.

Closely linked to power generation is the matter of fossil fuel extraction since that is used as the energy source for generating electricity. Natural gas already contributes to a large proportion of electricity generation. But more recently gas fields have reportedly started to dry up with gas production falling, which naturally has a knock-on effect on power generation and further worsened the power crisis. Although at one point gas production was in excess of the country’s demand, it is now well short of the requirement, so much so that the government decided to suspend gas supply to urea factories in order for power plants to receive sufficient gas.

Given the context, discussion among experts and policymakers across party lines is quite needful. There was indeed such a discussion organised by an aptly named periodical that particularly focuses on power and energy. The speakers quite rightly included academics, experts, bureaucrats and policymakers. They made the right kind of noises too. The keynote stressed the importance of coal extraction for sustainable energy solution. The discussion paper reportedly claimed that Bangladesh’s two billion tonnes of coal deposits could provide for 50 years’ of energy requirement to generate 10,000 megawatts per year.

The speakers, mostly policymakers, on their part, urged people to consider the situation patriotically. While some references to opposition of open-pit coal extraction were veiled, there were others that directly mentioned the name of a citizens’ platform consistently criticising the attitude of successive governments’ deals regarding fossil fuel extraction in the country – the National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas, Minerals & Power and Ports.

One former state minister for energy referring to this platform satirically said it appeared people on this national committee were the only experts in the country in energy issues. He said it seemed that this committee was the only party that fully understood all the issues and there was not a single individual that knew better. According to this former state minister, the national committee’s opposition to coal extraction was not practical but merely for opposition’s sake. The chief guest of the discussion, a current state minister, called upon this committee for pragmatism.

This discussion, which brought together former and current policymakers, meaning individuals from both sides of the partisan political divide namely the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, appeared to end in a surprise consensus, a surprise because members from either party hardly ever manage to agree on any issue. In fact, when it comes to opposition for mere opposition’s sake, politicians of these two partisan camps are in a different league all by themselves. The verdict was resoundingly in favour of coal extraction for electricity generation.

But this outcome should be put in context too. The discussion was organised by a fortnightly magazine that claims to avoid conflicts of interest focusing on power and energy issues. This magazine is widely perceived, at least among the better informed sections, as a publication endorsed and sponsored by companies involved in fossil fuel extraction. It is also because of such sponsorship that the publication is said to be an advocate for coal extraction, which would benefit the UK-based Global Coal Management. Asia Energy, a subsidiary of this company, has been a source of serious controversy regarding their dubious activities and false claims which at one point led to a public uprising at its proposed by site for open pit coal extraction in Phulbari, Dinajpur in 2006.

When law enforcers opened fire on a reasonably peaceful procession of 70,000 locals, it resulted in three deaths and many injured. Since then Asia Energy has also tried to create and prop up proxy citizens’ groups — an NGO association, a business forum of local chambers and a journalists’ association — that have become advocates for open-pit coal extraction. Although the company’s activities have been virtually suspended at the proposed mine-site due to strong local opposition, it still maintains and runs an office out of Dhaka besides branching out to other areas of investment.

One of the main reservations about open-pit coal mining has always been the environmental damage. The environmental damage would not be limited to the site itself. According to experts, the groundwater level, indispensable for irrigation in the fertile and heavily cultivated northern districts, would fall drastically for miles around the mine. The other reservation has been that almost 100,000 people would have to leave their homes, including several indigenous peoples. The proposed mine site also has a number of mosques, temples and graves that locals hold sacred. While the economics of an open-pit coalmine are ‘compelling’ compared to those of a shaft mine, neither the government nor any of the advocates have so far carried out a cost-benefit analysis that dismisses dissenters’ reservations and establishes a concrete case for open-pit coal extraction.

But none of the dissenters or the activist groups were invited to speak at the forum or refute the criticism directed at them, particularly by the former state minister for energy, who had to resign in the face of a scandal when newspapers reported that he was using a vehicle provided by Niko Resources, a Canadian firm claiming to specialise in abandoned gas fields. This firm was given permission to extract gas from Tengratila, which was at that time ‘deemed to have been abandoned’ although it was supposed to have about half trillion cubic feet of gas. 

The current adviser for energy, a decorated freedom fighter and a former bureaucrat who had been in charge of the energy ministry’s secretariat, claimed to have lost a report on the Magurchhara blow-out in 1996 that recommended heavy fines for the operator. He was also rumoured to have been instrumental in ensuring that Niko acquired the permission to operate Tengratila as an ‘abandoned’ gas field. Mining companies across the world, especially those involved in fossil fuel extraction, have infamous reputations. They are accused with almost all kinds of misdeeds and crimes, including murder. It is not unusual or unreasonable then that the public are suspicious of people in the sector to be party to irregularities and corruption, given the mining companies’ regular practice of bribery.

It is also a rational conjecture then that the possibility of financial irregularities may have been among the reasons why this ministry is never delegated to anyone but the prime minister. Thus, it is also the successive prime ministers who have been responsible for terrible state of electricity production and all the dubious deals in the power and energy. There should be little doubt that politicians who have headed these ministries or the bureaucrats who run the secretariat have also been responsible for corruption that necessarily compelled them to compromise the country’s interest for personal gains. Successive governments have neither strived to make dealings in this sector transparent nor have they made themselves accountable to the public. It would be somewhat audacious for these people to preach patriotism and honesty.

There is little doubt that the country is hungry for electricity. There is little doubt that the amount of coal deposits in Bangladesh is significant enough to attract attention and investment. It will require a deliberated decision on which course to follow for increasing electricity generation. Whatever the decision, the government must make it based on opinions and debates among all the different quarters. If the government is really sincere about reaching its target of adding 5,000 megawatts, then the process should begin without delay.

Bangladesh PM Hasina asked to fulfil her pledge against open-pit mining

April 22, 2009

Power crisis ‘artificially created’, ‘evil circle’ in power ministry

NewAge, April 22, 2009

The National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port on Tuesday requested Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to fulfil the commitment she had made as the leader of the opposition in 2006 to not allow open-pit mining in the country.

‘The former opposition leader and the incumbent prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, visited Phulbari in Dinajpur on September 4, five days after the Phulbari tragedy, and made a strong announcement that she would resist any move to operate any open-pit mine there as well as any other place in the country,’ said the committee’s convenor, Sheikh Md Shahidullah, at a discussion meeting in the National Press Club.

He said that Sheikh Hasina had also extended her full support to the agreement that the committee signed on behalf of people of Phulbari with the then BNP-led four-party government for cancelling the contract with Asia Energy for mining the Phulbari coal-field and for banning open-pit mining.

The then government signed the six-point Phulbari agreement with the committee, who represented the people of Phulbari, after three persons were killed on August 26, 2006 when law enforcers opened fire on people demonstrating against the Asia Energy’s proposed open-pit mine at Phulbari.

Hasina held a public meeting in the premises of the Phulbari Government College on September 4 to protest against the killing. Influential AL leader Matia Chowdhury, who is now the agriculture minister, Mostafizur Rahman Fizar, who is now the state-minister for forest and environment, and Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal’s president, Hasanul Haque Inu, were present at that meeting.

Shahidullah, at a the discussion meeting on Power Crisis, Evil Circle in Energy Ministry and Aggression of the Multi-National Companies, alleged that a minister, who is a relative of Hasina, had reportedly said that the open-pit mining was the only way to overcome the current energy crisis.

He said that energy shortage could be mitigated by underground mining of various coal-fields. ‘If we go for underground mining, we can extract 10-20 per cent of our coal reserve and with this amount we can meet our demand for 20 years. If we do open-pit mining, there will be environmental disaster and the extracted coal will have to be exported because of the high cost of extraction,’ he claimed.

The member-secretary of the committee, Professor Anu Mohammad, said that the current power and energy crisis has been ‘artificially created’ so that the country’s gas- and coal-fields can be handed over to foreign companies on the plea of exploration and production. ‘It is like blackmailing the nation to force the launching of projects beneficial to the foreign companies,’ he said.

The former director-general of the Power Cell, BD Rahmatullah, also claimed that the power crisis has been artificially created to push more controversial power projects like rental power plants.

He blamed the previous BNP-Jamaat government for failing to commission new power plants and observed that the present government had also failed to take any initiative to do so.

He also blamed the bureaucracy for the current crisis and observed that the secretariat should be ‘bombarded’ to root out ‘hooligans’.

Shahidullah said that certain quarters were blaming the national committee for the delay in formulating the coal policy and awarding of offshore gas blocks. ‘It is the government, which is delaying, not we. The coal policy is being delayed so that it can be formulated in a way that will favour the multinational companies,’ he observed.

‘We demand that the coal policy should be formulated immediately, keeping the peoples’ interest in mind. The government should also scrap the bidding process for offshore blocks that took place during the tenure of the interim government and go for fresh bidding after framing a new model production sharing contract by taking the people’s opinion,’ he said.

He claimed that the PM’s adviser, Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, was the leader of the ‘evil circle’ in the power and energy ministry, and the new chairman of Petrobangla, Muktadir Ali, was a ‘member’ along with others, and demanded their removal.

Justice Golam Rabbani, Professor Shamsul Alam, journalist Syed Abul Maksud and leftist leader Ruhin Hossain Prince were present on the occasion, along with others.

Govt has no mining deal with Asia Energy: PM’s adviser

April 7, 2009

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, April 6, 2009

The government has no mining agreement with Asia Energy for Phulbari coal field in Dinajpur, said adviser to the prime minister, Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury.

‘As far as I have learnt, there is no mining agreement with Asia Energy [for Phulbari coal field]. The issue of Asia Energy will be dealt with after the finalisation of the coal policy,’ Tawfiq told reporters on Thursday, replying to a query about what steps the new government would take on the Asia Energy issue.

Different rights and professional groups including the National Committee to Protect Oil Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port and the Bangladesh Economic Association have been demanding ouster of the controversial UK based company, which submitted a development scheme to the government in 2005 for operating an open pit mine at Phulbari.

Three persons were killed and many others were injured in August 2006 when law enforcers opened fire on protesters at Phulbari, who were protesting against the planned open-pit mine of the company saying that the environment of the area would be destroyed and they would lose their livelihoods and homes if the open-pit mine was operated.

Although the energy officials have claimed that the controversial UK-based company was only given the coal exploration licence and any decision on awarding the mining licence would depend on the government, Asia energy claimed that it was given the coal mining lease for ‘B area’ of the coal field in 2004.

The company has been waiting for a government decision on its coal field development plan, which was submitted in 2005 as the successive government failed to take any decision, although an expert committee, formed by the government, found in 2006 that the company’s agreement with the government was ‘illegal’ and that it would not be viable to operate the company’s planned open-pit mine.

The company’s chairman, Gary Lye on November 30, 2007, at a meeting with the members of the advisory committee to finalise the coal policy, claimed that after the mining lease was granted by the government, Asia Energy carried out a full scale exploratory drilling and conducted a feasibility study including the assessments of its impact on the environment and the society before submitting the development scheme.

‘There is the contract which contains an investment agreement and we have already invested a lot. The contract also covers the mining issue,’ he said.

The company claimed that it had submitted an application for the mining licence for ‘B area’ which contains 1921 hectares of land, in November 15, 2000 and got the licence on April 1, 2004, when it was given 24 months of time to submit a development scheme after completing the feasibility study.

The company said it also held the exploration licence for G area with 1447 hectares and H area with 2112 hectares of land. It had applied for the mining licence for G and H areas along with I area with 10,371 hectares, T area 1775 hectares and U area with 286 hectares of land, the company said.

Members of the expert committee which evaluated Asia Energy’s development scheme, however, said that the company wanted around 6500 hectares of land in total for coal mining.

‘There is vagueness in the letter which the government gave to Asia Energy in 2004 to allow it to conduct the feasibility study. The letter basically says that it would be given mining licence if its development plan was accepted. So if its development scheme is not accepted, the government can say “no” to Asia Energy,’ said a member.

As per the committee report, Asia energy’s Phulbari coal field development scheme should not be approved on any account — legal, technological, financial, environmental and institutional.