Sunday, January 25, 2009

Phulbari elections result is the writing on the wall

Editorial, NewAge , January 25, 2009

The message that people of Phulbari have delivered through the ballots at the upazila elections is loud and clear. They have voted overwhelming in favour of Saiful Islam Bablu running for chairman of the sub-district at the local government elections of January 22. Bablu’s political identity is largely defined by his membership of the citizens’ platform National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas, Mineral, Power and Ports and it is significant that he was instrumental in organising the popular movement against an open-pit coal mine in the area proposed by Asia Energy, a subsidiary of the UK-based Global Coal Management.

The previous elected government of the BNP-led alliance was forced to back out of the area and enter into an agreement with ‘the people of Phulbari’, which stipulated among others that open-pit mining in the area would be suspended and Asia Energy would be sent packing. At the local government elections, the people of Phulbari have once again said no to open-pit coal mining. They have also said no to the secrecy that successive governments have maintained regarding their deals with international mining companies especially concerning extraction of fossil fuels: a facet of energy deals that the Committee has consistently criticised.

This upazila election result at Phulbari also carries a message for the prime minister who has recently appointed Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, a former secretary for power and energy, as a government adviser who will oversee the sector. In doing so, the prime minister has indicated that she is content with the services that Tawfiq provided during his tenure as a secretary to the government for energy. This appointment also indicates that the prime minister has chosen to ignore several allegations against the former bureaucrat especially regarding the instrumental role he had played to have one gas-field declared ‘abandoned’ and thereafter handed over to little-known Canadian mining company, Niko Resources. His role regarding the Magurchhara gas-field blowout, which was being operated by the oil company Occidental in 1996 has also been controversial and cited as one of the reasons that Bangladesh failed to secure proper compensations for environmental damages and burnt gas.

Governments of poor countries, as is often the case, enter into secret deals with mining companies and grant them rights to extraction, largely ignoring the interests of the people they govern. In Bangladesh the history of oil and gas exploration shows no exception to this experience.

However, the citizens’ platform has shown through its relentless campaign through the last decade that it can raise the awareness of the people and mobilise them in thousands demanding that their rights and welfare not be ignored. Power and energy remains one of the prime concerns for the current government and it will have to perform well in this sector which has been ignored for too long. The government, as well as the prime minister herself, would do well to heed the message the people of Phulbari have delivered.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Phulbari people use ballot to say no to open-pit mining

NewAge, January 24, 2009

The people of Phulbari upazila in Dinajpur have elected an independent candidate as chairman who wooed the voters through a campaign against the proposed open-pit mining in the Phulbari coal field as it would displace thousands of people. Aminul Islam Bablu, a leader of rights group National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port, became chairman of the upazila in Thursday’s election bagging 57,262 votes against his nearest rival, Bangladesh Awami League-backed Sudarshan Palit’s 24,791 votes.

Bablu, who has been actively involved in the movements against Asia Energy’s proposed open pit mining in Phulbari coal field, during his polls campaign vowed that he, along with the people of the upazila, would resist any attempt to operate open-pit mining displacing their homes.

‘My position will remain the same. I will continue to remain with the slogan of the upazila people “no open-pit mining, no foreigners and no export [of coal]”,’ Bablu told New Age on Friday.

The election campaign of Bablu got momentum when people of all walks of life participated in the campaign, despite intimidation by activists of the AL-backed candidate. Even people, from beggars to school teachers, willingly gave donation to Bablu’s election campaign, according to the local people.

Professor Anu Muhammad, member secretary of the national committee, told New Age that the people’s verdict in favour of Bablu again showed Phulbari people do not want open-pit mining in the area.

‘Many people claimed that only people from outside of Phulbari are against the open-pit mining. I think the people of Phulbari have replied,’ he said.

Three people were killed and many others were injured in Phulbari in 2006 when law enforcers opened fire on people who were protesting against the proposed open-pit mining by the UK-based Asia Energy.

The then government signed a contract with the national committee that spearheaded the movement to oust the company from Bangladesh but the company is still active in the country.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Call to banish Asia Energy Corporation

BDNews24, Sun, Jan 11th, 2009 9:12 pm BdST

A citizens’ group has demanded Asia Energy Corporation be banished from Bangladesh, open-pit coalmine banned and seven-point deal with Fulbari dwellers honoured.

“In the wake of public protests, the then government reached an accord with the inhabitants of Fulbari, and the present prime minister Sheikh Hasina backed that deal and demanded its immediate implementation,” Prof. Anu Muhammad said on Sunday in a written statement at a briefing at National Press Club.

“That deal has yet to be implemented,” said Anu, member secretary of the national committee to protect oil, gas, mineral resources, power, ports.

“The already-discovered Jalalabad gas field has been given away to US oil company Chevron illogically,” the statement said.

The committee demanded that all past ministers, bureaucrats, consultants and businessmen-agents who were involved in plundering national resources be given exemplary punishment.

“We want this government not to patronise or protect multinational plunderers, lobbyists of these companies and their commission agents,” the statement said.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Contentious energy issues in store for next govt

NewAge, January 4, 2008

The Awami League-led alliance, which is set to form the government, will need to deal with some contentious issues in energy sector such as formulation of a coal policy taking into account national interests, demand for the cancellation of the agreement with Asia Energy for the Phulbari coal field and the award of offshore blocks to international oil companies.

It will also find it tough to implement its election pledge to increase the power generation to 7000MW by 2013 from about 3800MW now because of gas shortage, which has already hit generation in the existing power plants.

The interim government has left the coal policy, Asia Energy and offshore blocks issue for the elected government amid controversy and protests by rights groups over the open-pit mining method and export provision in the model production sharing contracts for gas blocks.

‘Successive heads of the government have kept the power and energy ministry in their hands. The sector is plagued with corruption as a huge amount of money is transacted in the sector and it is heavily investment-dependent. A full minister should be appointed this time for the energy and power sector,’ observed an energy expert as he talked with New Age on Saturday.

Energy expert Professor Nurul Islam of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, on the other hand, said the new government should formulate an integrated national energy policy by including coal policy and barring export of any local energy such as gas and coal as Bangladesh is facing an energy crisis.

He told New Age on Saturday the government should integrate into the national energy policy the version of coal policy the advisory committee, headed by BUET professor Abdul Matin Patwari, finalised. The latest draft of the coal policy, however, is slightly different as the energy division made some changes.

Nurul also recommended the government should cancel the procedure to award two international oil companies nine offshore blocks and go for fresh bidding by scrapping the provision for the export of gas up to 80 per cent in the model production sharing contract.

‘Leaders of the Awami League, Workers Party of Bangladesh and Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal time and again expressed their solidarity with us in our demand for a coal policy barring open-pit mine, cancellation of the agreement with Asia Energy and award of offshore blocks to two international oil companies. As they are set to form the government, we hope they will meet our demands,’ said Professor Anu Muhammad, member secretary on the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources Power and Port.

Anu Muhammad also hoped the new government will implement fully the agreement the former BNP-led government signed with the committee to bar open-pit mining in Bangladesh and to expel Asia Energy from Bangladesh.

‘We also demand the new government should cancel the offshore bidding as the existing PSC has a provision for export of 80 per cent of gas,’ he said. He said they would continue with their movements until their demands are met.

Power experts feel the Awami League-led government will be in better position in terms of availability of funds for the installation of power plants as the government has already signed contracts with the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and the Japan Bank of International Cooperation for around $1 billion of loan for the installation of power plants with 1,000MW capacity. Three to four more power plants are in the pipeline whereas the investors have interest in the installation of around 1,000MW impendent power plant.

‘But the main problem the new government will face is the conditions of the lenders and shortage of gas to run the plants. If the new government wants to increase power generation to 7,000MW, around 700 million cubic feet of additional gas will be needed for the additional 3,000MW of power,’ said a power division official.

With the existing gas reserve, it is highly unlikely to produce another 700mmcfd of gas by 2013 while the additional coal extraction is unlikely before 2013 even if the government approves coal policy in three months, he said.