19th March 2020
Prof Dr. Badrul Imam

There is no technical issue about mining coal from Phulbari, but there are socio-economic issues that would trigger political problems. On the other hand, failure of the government in exploring petroleum resources has made the government to increasingly leaning towards import of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). And again, this flawed strategy will let the government continue increasing the fuel price and power tariff. I do not think this will facilitate industrialization at the expected pace.


Prof Dr. Badrul Imam, Supernumerary Professor of Dhaka University, said this at an exclusive interview with Energy & Power Editor Mollah Amzad Hossain.


What are your views about the present scenario of primary fuel supply and continued price hike?


If the presently pursued policy continues, the price will continue to increase. The use of own primary fuel is diminishing and import of coal, LNG and liquid petroleum products are increasing. The government has to spend US$ 3.0 billion annually for importing 1,000 MMCFD of LNG. In 2025, about 2,500 MMCFD of LNG is expected to be used. Imported LNG would drive the price hike of gas and electricity. There would be no option but to increase the price on continuous basis and in frequent intervals. In my opinion, the government’s policy of overly leaning towards LNG is a flawed decision. Expedited actions for oil and gas exploration especially in the offshore over this period could have brought better dividends. That could have delayed the requirement of LNG import. The present unpleasant situation in energy sector has been created due to serious negligence and failure of the government in exploring and exploiting own fuel resources.


The left over 11 Tcf own gas may completely deplete by 2031 at the present rate of using it. As a result, the use of imported LNG will continue to rise. In phases, the government will have to import up to 6,000 MMCFD of LNG. What could be the impact on the economy in 2041?


In my opinion, the vision for mid-income and developed economy is, without any doubt, the outcome of an honest desire of the government. But the energy projection has been made linking it with the GDP growth. I have doubt whether it is appropriate. I would like to question why the government is getting increasingly reliant on the imported primary fuel. The stress, created with the import of expensive fuel, would impede smooth and planned industrialization in Bangladesh. The government must adopt policy and start implementation of exploring and exploiting own primary fuel resources.


What do you think Bangladesh should do for getting gas supply at affordable price?


I think, we must stick to Bangabandhu’s doctrine and vision for energy. For that we have to attach top priority of utilizing own fuel. There is no doubt that the government has drifted away from the Bangabandhu’s energy vision. BAPEX and Petrobangla could not be developed like PETRONAS or even ONGC though we got a long period of time. For lack of adequate care by the government, BAPEX could not reach where it should have been by now. They discovered eight gas fields. Bhola North is also their latest discovery. But the government could not come out of a negative mind set about BAPEX till now. However, there exists no other option of getting low cost gas supply without strengthening and relying on BAPEX.


The BAPEX alone policy on onshore exploration could not achieve expected success in discovering new gas fields. Do you think onshore exploration like offshore should also be let out for PSC bidding?


Exploration in the complicated geologic entities like high-pressure zones, tight gas sands and other unconventional prospects can be let out for PSC bidding. On the other hand, in some identified difficult geologic terrains and disturbed structures as in the Chittagong Hill Tracts BAPEX can work with carefully-selected foreign partner in joint venture for further exploration.The remaining blocks and ring-fenced areas in the onshore should be kept preserved for BAPEX. There were some initiatives for engaging JV partner of BAPEX for exploration in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region. I am not sure why the initiative was stalled. But BAPEX presently does not have the required experience or capacity for offshore exploration. Offshore exploration must be let out for PSC bidding.


We must take a note that the discovery of Bhola North, a complex structure, evidences BAPEX’s maturity as an exploration company. This followed a round of 3D seismic survey and successful interpretation for locating the drill point in northern Bhola island. Previously the company discovered the first gas field named Shahbazpur in the central part of the island. The geologists of BAPEX strongly believe that should the company allowed to run further 3D seismic surveys, similar gas prospects would be found in southern part of Bhola island. BAPEX is definitely competent for exploration in Bhola on stand alone basis. We cannot find any logic of letting GAZPROM working in Bhola instead of BAPEX. This has seriously undermined the BAPEX’s capability.Rather, if BAPEX is supported with finance and manpower, they are competent enough for working there successfully. There are scopes for attracting NRB experts to work with BAPEX.


Do you think any special initiative should be taken for exploration in the western region, deeper prospects/ high-pressure zones and CHT structures for oil and gas exploration? If so, what are your suggestions?


I mentioned earlier IOCs can be engaged for exploration in unconventional gas prospects like high pressure zone, tight gas, synclinal plays etc. Also BAPEX can work in joint venture with competent IOCs for further exploration in the difficult terrains and complicated structures in CHT. GAZPROM may be invited for deep drilling in the high-pressure zones. Fresh controversy would be created if GAZPROM is engaged in the BAPEX discovered fields for development. Similar flawed action was taken in handing over Petrobangla owned Jalalabad Gas field to Occidental for development which is now being operated by Chevron.BAPEX must be given required money and allowed to recruit and retain competent technical professionals and management experts with attractive remuneration for expeditious exploration and development works in all other onshore blocks and frontier areas.


We have actually failed to start exploration in the deep water prospects of the Bay of Bengal after so many years of resolution of maritime boundary disputes with neighbors. What needs to be done?


Exploration could have started in 2016 if right decisions could be taken at the right time. Energy and Mineral Resources Division (EMRD) completely failed to take the right actions on the basis of Petrobangla initiatives in 2015 for developing database on information which was supposed to be acquired through multi-client surveys. Favorable environment for attracting foreign investment from IOCs prevailed at that time for higher price of crude in the global market. It is frustrating that we have  failed to avail of the opportunity for exploiting resources even after 8 years of resolution of the maritime boundary disputes with neighbors’ India and Myanmar. Myanmar has achieved commendable success in offshore exploration in their offshore area, adjacent to Bangladesh boundary, over this period.


Petrobangla has just reportedly concluded a contract now for multi-client survey with recommended bidder. But it is too late to give fruits for the upcoming bidding round. The multi-client survey could not be done this season and the results would not be available before a year and half if not more, at the least. I have doubt whether Petrobangla can attract IOCs in such situation as they are set to go for fresh bidding round for deep offshore in March/April 2020. However there is no option of waiting for a single day. Encouraging response from the IOCs is linked with the data package along with the bidding document.


I believe there is bright prospect for finding significant gas resources in blocks adjacent to maritime boundary with Myanmar. Over the last several years Myanmar has successfully discovered significant gas in Rakhain offshore following the settlement of maritime boundary dispute with Bangladesh. There is no geologic or natural divide between Rakhain offshore in Myanmar and Bangladesh offshore. And we believe the next large gas fields in Bangladesh will be discovered along the southeast maritime boundary area with Myanmar depending on our efforts to engage in exploration. The data SANTOS acquired at SS11 also has encouraging prospect and supports the above notion in my opinion, getting good news from offshore is only a matter of time. The quicker we can engage IOCs through fair and competitive bidding more chances of discovering resources earlier.


How do you think new technology being adopted in national exploration ventures?


Technology in petroleum exploration and production has been improving in the western world very fast. Fracturing and horizontal drilling is common in north America and Europe and can produce ten times more gas than a vertical well for example. At a time of intense indigenous gas crisis in Bangladesh, such technology can significantly increase production rates in our gas fields. It is good to see the      interest of high ups in the administration for such technology, but planning for its application in our gas field is not forthcoming!


Exploration of own coal is being discussed over a long time. What the government should do for starting mining at Phulbari and Khalashpir?


There is no technical problem for open pit mining at Phulbari. But in the context of Bangladesh, a large open pit mine would create significant social problem. That will also create political crisis. This is because coal seam is deeper at Phulbari. That is among the reasons BHP backed out from mining the coal after discovering it. Possibly from that consideration, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh is not giving green signal for mining at Phulbari. But I find no issue for commencing underground mining at Khalashpir agreeing with the recommendation of the consultants.


What the government should do for open pit mining at Barapukuria and mining at Dighipara?


The depth of seam at Dighipara is 300-407 meters. There is no scope of open pit mining from there. In the Barapukuria coal basin underground mining is running in the central part where coal seam occur at greater depth, but coal seams occur at shallow depths at the northern part of the Barapukuria Basin. A feasibility study for small to moderate scale open pit mining in the northern part should be undertaken and appropriate action should be taken on the recommendation of the study.  BCMCL has acquired land in the northern part and the local people reportedly have interest in such a mine. The government is likely to get social acceptance from the local people for the mine.


Civil society in its report alleged pilferage of 5.48 tonnes of coal from Barapukuria. What do you think about it?


CAB in its report pointed out unethical practice of BCMCL in mine management. The report on Barapukuria that the civil society produced has not pointedly blamed any person for coal going unaccounted for. Rather it has pointed out how flawed system has let this coal being lost. This has brought into light the malpractices done in coal management and supply from the mine-mouth to the power plant and to private parties.


How would you evaluate BBIN and SAARC Energy Cooperation? India is exporting power to Bangladesh. What do you think are the issues to develop it to multi-country power trading in the region?


All modes of regional energy trading will auger well for energy security of Bangladesh. Our failure for letting tri-nation gas pipeline transiting across Bangladesh from Myanmar to India deprived us from getting cheaper pipeline gas. Now, Myanmar is not longer in a position to supply any gas to Bangladesh. We must proceed with prospect of energy trading under BBIN and BIMSTEC umbrellas. BIMSTEC collaboration must also include energy trading rather than confining it to power trading. At the same time, we must explore the possibilities of accessing the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) cross border regional gas pipelines. Russia is now dominating gas trading to Western Europe.


How it is possible to carry forward the BIMSTEC Energy Cooperation given the existence of Rohingya Problem?


Please note that Rohingya crisis is a globally addressed crisis now. Bangladesh is working in regional and global forums for resolving the crisis. But Bangladesh and Myanmar has trade relation going unabated. I do not think Rohingya crisis will have major impact on BIMSTEC Energy Cooperation.


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