A ray of hope – Bangladesh now has all the opportunities to tap into a potential "goldmine" in the form of huge gas hydrates and several hundred species of seaweed discovered in the Bay of Bengal.
The country has found the presence of around 17 to 103 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of ice-like hydrate deposits containing huge amounts of methane, the foreign ministry revealed on Wednesday.
While Bangladesh at COP26 committed to gradually cut down its fossil fuel usage and go for green energy, the country still needs fossil fuel like natural gas in the next two decades in order to ensure a smooth transition and energy security.
Now, the discovery of gas hydrates has come as a blessing.
In 2018-21, the Maritime Affairs Unit of the foreign ministry in association with the UK analysed two surveys conducted on 6,500 line-kilometres of the sea during 2007-10, and presumed a plenty of marine resources in the exclusive economic zone.
Gas hydrate is a crystalline solid formed of water and gas looking like ice and contains huge amounts of methane.
While making the disclosure at a press conference, Rear Admiral Khurshed Alam (retd), secretary of Maritime Affairs Unit, told the media, "It would be possible to determine the actual reserves of gas hydrates if a complete seismic survey is conducted in the country's entire marine zone."
With the approval of the prime minister, a group led by the Maritime Affairs Unit was formed in 2018 to analyse data obtained from the surveys conducted earlier in the Bay of Bengal to determine gas hydrate reserves in the occupied waters of Bangladesh.
Speaking at the event, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said, "Undoubtedly, the survey results are very promising for Bangladesh. Getting such a huge reserve of gas hydrates is a watershed moment for Bangladesh."
The foreign minister said such huge gas hydrates as a source of environment-friendly fuel will help meet future energy demand.
"We hope Bangladesh will soon enter a new era of energy through the extraction of gas hydrates," the foreign minister noted.
Does Bangladesh have what it takes to produce gas from hydrate deposits?
Energy expert and geologist Dr Badrul Imam said there is still little for Bangladesh to benefit from the huge discovery as technologies required to produce gas from hydrates are not developed yet in the world.
"Some countries, such as Japan and Canada, are trying to develop necessary technologies. But even if they become successful, it will take another 10-15 years for Bangladesh to avail it," he added.
Besides, it is still unknown what percentage of gas could be recovered from such a reserve, he pointed out.
On the other hand, Petrobangla officials said the presence of such gas hydrates is very common in any maritime area.
For example, India has also confirmed the potential for huge gas hydrate reserves in the Bay of Bengal, especially in the Krishna-Godavari basin, says Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India data.
A total of 27 gas fields, stocked with around 28 TCF, were discovered in the country. Of these, about 18.24 TCF of gas had been extracted till 2020.
Currently, 20 gas fields are operational in Bangladesh with the supply of only 2,300 TCF of gas per day against a national demand of 3,500 million cubic feet (mmcf) per day.
The country's own gas resources are depleting fast due to high demand against a lack of any significant gas discovery in the last two decades.
Bangladesh is currently spending billions of dollars to import Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) to keep its industries and electricity operational to cover the gas supply shortfall.
Since 2018, the government has been importing at least 500 mmcf/d of LNG through two floating storage regasification units.
This is why exploring the deep sea for oil and gas has become very important for its economy.
Oil and gas discoveries in deep Bay
That the Bay of Bengal has a lot of oil and gas prospects is evident from how India and Myanmar have been tapping the resources for the last two decades.
India has so far discovered a total of 40 trillion cubic feet of gas in place through drilling a large number of wells. Its biggest discovery is in Dhirubhai deepwater block – located in Krishna-Godavari Basin – the midpoint of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, having 25 TCF gas in place. It has been producing 2.1 billion cubic feet per day since 2009.
Other significant gas discoveries include the Deen Dayal gas field with an in-place resource of 2-3 TCF in 2005.
Since then, they have made eight additional discoveries. In Mahandi Basin, India found 3 TCF gas. But India has also drilled 40 wells in the Bengal Basin where they made no discovery.
Myanmar on the other hand discovered from 2003 to 2006 three gas fields totaling up to 6 tcf to 10 tcf gas in place in the Bay.
In the last decade, Bangladesh had a proposal from American company Conocophillips to drill an exploratory oil and gas well in the deep sea. Conocophillips conducted a seismic survey in blocks 10 and 11 under a contract, and proposed drilling the well 350km away from the Chattogram coast.
The company was eyeing 5 to 7 trillion cubic feet of gas. But the possibility of success to find this gas was just 17% whereas the company sought a number of financial terms that the government did not agree with. Conocophillips left Bangladesh in 2014.
Seaweed explored offers commercial potential
Another survey conducted by the Maritime Affairs Unit along with the Netherlands found the presence of seaweed in the Bay, offering a huge commercial potential and its domestic use reducing import dependency and its subsequent export to the global market.
The results of the research show that some of the many species of seaweed found in Bangladesh have huge commercial potential, which can play a significant role in the blue economy of Bangladesh.
The research has identified five industrial applications of certain species of seaweed found in Bangladesh. These are fish feed, animal feed, food additive, bulk cosmetics ingredient and high value cosmetic ingredient.
"It is another goldmine. It needs promotion," the foreign minister told reporters while sharing the outcome of a research based on sea-based seaweed.
Momen said industrial raw materials worth Tk28,000 crore are currently being used in Bangladesh for a number of purposes, including for ingredients of soaps and shampoos.
Bangladesh can domestically source ingredients worth Tk16,000 crore if it can develop seaweed locally apart from exporting the surplus production of seaweed. It has a lot of potential, said the foreign minister.
The Maritime Affairs Unit, led by Khurshed Alam, has been conducting the research with significant progress over the last two years assessing the presence, overall location, economic potential and commercialisation of marine genetic Resources, which includes all marine animal and plant resources.
The Netherlands-based researchers, along with representatives of the Maritime Affairs Unit, conducted field-level research in the sea area of Bangladesh in 2020.
The study analysed the economic potential of marine genetic resources' overall position mapping in Bangladesh's exclusive economic zone, including the identification of various species.
On the basis of those results, 220 species of seaweed, 347 species of marine fish, 498 species of oysters, 52 species of shrimp, five species of lobster, six species of crabs, 61 species of sea-grass were identified in Bangladesh.
Necessary laboratory tests on these species were later performed in the Netherlands.
In the current context, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Md Shahriar Alam at the press briefing said hatchery, farming, processing plant and industrial application will be required for commercial production and management of marine seaweed in Bangladesh.
Seaweed production can be done very easily in an environmentally-friendly manner. Seaweed cultivation can play a role in protecting the ecological balance as well as protecting the coastal areas, he added
Shahriar said seaweed cultivation is capable of creating easy and secure employment opportunities for the coastal people of Bangladesh, where a significant number of women workers can be easily employed.