The Daily Star, May 27, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh
An intelligence agency in a special report has suggested that the government temporarily suspend all direct or indirect activities of Asia Energy to avert severe deterioration in law and order around Phulbari coalmine.
In a report to the energy ministry, the home ministry has referred to a special report of the intelligence agency saying that in order to avoid such a situation, the government must formulate a policy on Phulbari coalmine that is acceptable to all considering national and local interest and on the basis of open discussion at national level.
The report also suggested that the government should motivate all local people in favour of the coalmine.
Sources say the energy ministry on May 15 reviewed the report and observed that Asia Energy has not been given any lease to develop Phulbari mine and the government has not taken any decision on open cut or underground mining.
Decisions on these matters may be taken after the draft coal policy is finalised.
The process to frame the coal policy was initiated by the energy ministry since August 2005. This process slowed down apparently due to disputes surrounding the proposed Phulbari coalmine and Asia Energy.
The ministry also felt that the Bureau of Mineral Development (BMD) should ask Asia Energy to refrain from all activities under its own name or other names.
Later, the ministry decided not to say anything to Asia Energy.
Asia Energy's activities in Phulbari came to a halt following violent protests, in which six people were killed in August 2006.
The protests were organised by the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port. The key factor of the protests included fear of displacement of more than 200,000 people and losing huge arable land.
After the Phulbari protests, the government officially did not say anything to Asia Energy, while the British company routinely filed applications enquiring about the status of its proposal for the mine.
On March 7, 2007, the BMD wrote to Asia Energy for the first time saying the company would have to wait till the coal policy is finalised. The BMD sent a second letter on November 5 reiterating the same position.
Though Asia Energy made a visible presence in 2002, it did not draw national attention till it submitted a feasibility study and a scheme of development in 2005.
The company in its study shows the mine has 572 million tonnes of high quality coal and 90 percent of it can be extracted through an open pit mine.
Asia Energy's proposals included building a 500MW coal-fired power plant at mine site at an estimated cost of $476 million.
The company was scheduled to start the mine development from late 2006 with first coal in 2008. Full production was expected to be achieved by 2013.
Asia Energy entered the coal mining scenario in 1998 by buying the mining contract originally given to international coal giant BHP on August 20, 1994.
Supporters of National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port say Asia Energy was given the exploration licence unfairly by compromising national interest. They add that the company had no mining experience and that open pit mining will harm the environment.
Petrobangla experts however differ with the Committee, especially on the question of open pit mining, saying Bangladesh lacks energy security and its coal can provide a great solution.
Sixteen million tonnes of coal can generate 5,000MW power for one year. Coal can also be transformed into synthetic petroleum and a host of other useful chemicals.
The Asia Energy debate is holding back all decisions regarding other prospective coalmines.