Thursday, May 21, 2009

New face of an old campaign

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.