Russia's invasion of Ukraine has caused a humanitarian catastrophe and disrupted the global economy, shattering long-standing commercial links. It has raised energy costs for consumers and companies alike throughout the globe, harming homes, industries and economies – especially in poor countries.
The global energy crisis has started to bite Bangladesh too. In recent days, there has been a disruption in power generation as a direct result of the crisis. Given the situation, discussions about Bangladesh's undiscovered gas exploration, negligence of local sources and dependency on imports have reemerged.
In a conversation with The Business Standard, Dr M Tamim, Professor of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Engineering, Buet, talked about how adequate gas exploration could have kept us in a better situation to deal with the present crisis now.
Potentially large quantities of undiscovered gas have not been properly explored. Given the global energy crisis, do you think we could have met our national needs with local sources?
It is difficult to say. Definitely, we had many potential gas fields. Without exploration and investigation, it cannot be said with certainty, but most probably we would have been in a better situation right now. The geological surveys indicate good possibilities. There is certainly a chance of failure, but there is no point in sitting idly.
One thing is certain that it was possible to increase production from the existing gas fields. Now Petrobangla has taken steps to produce 600 million cubic feet of gas over the next three years from the gas fields we already have. They have many technical ways through which production can be increased. But these steps should have been taken earlier. It could have been done five to six years ago.
The lack of follow-up on geological surveys and surveys of different periods has played a major role in the plight of the gas sector today. Petrobangla has not taken any initiative to utilise these surveys for more than two decades. This can be considered the biggest example of Petrobangla's inaction in the exploration of the gas sector.
Even though the master plan of the country's power sector is arranged around gas, the matter of extraction and increasing supply from local sources remains neglected. Dependence on imports prevails. Experts have observed that this import dependency has now pushed the country's electricity and energy sector into a fragile state. What is your opinion?
There were in fact two related master plans. In neither case was there much provision kept for increasing our own gas supply. A large portion of dependence is placed on imported gas, while local potential is shown as low. The organisation they gathered the information from in creating these master plans did not think local sources would be enough.
Two master plans were made, in 2010 and in 2016. In 2010, 30% of our electricity was supposed to be generated from our own coal. It was later announced that we will not extract our coal.
In the new plan from 2016, 35% coal and 35% gas is to be used to meet electricity demands. Here, coal is almost entirely imported, and so is a large part of the gas. The entire master plan was therefore almost dependent on import. 90% of the fuel used for power generation is now imported.
The import-dependent plans did not really work out for the energy department. On the contrary, slight fluctuations in the world market made implementation of the plans difficult. The dependency has exacerbated the financial crisis in the related industries.
What are the root causes of our lack of foresight in the energy sector? Many people question the efficiency of the two organisations - Petrobangla and Bapex. To what extent do you agree with this?
There is a clear lack of leadership in the sector. The stagnation in gas exploration and extraction in the country indicates a lack of foresight. The organisations responsible are either not competent enough or not willing.
Petrobangla lacked planning. At the same time, the plans made by Bapex at various times were stuck in bureaucratic complications for years. Due to this, there was no search operation for gas in the country for a long time.
Petrobangla and Bapex are involved in the exploration and extraction activities in the country's energy sector. Stakeholders have complained that Petrobangla has taken various stubborn decisions at different times. At the same time, Bapex's efficiency is questionable.
We don't have many resources to start with, in the first place. Secondly, we don't want to take risks of exploring due to financial risks. And there are some environmental concerns too.
One of the reasons for this inactivity was our mass movement to protect oil and gas. There were campaigns against foreign investment. Rather, I think the foreign investment would have been beneficial for us. If they found gas, we had to pay them. But if no gas was found, we were not obliged to pay.
Proposals for coal production also came from foreign companies. As soon as it came, there was a huge protest alleging that they would steal our wealth. No neutral third party verified such claims. The Opposition parties also objected. The government, meanwhile, did not take any steps to verify or counter those fears through any neutral organisation.
Apart from gas, what can be our alternative sources, especially local sources? What do you think about coal?
Our own sources are gas and coal. The biggest fear in coal production is purely environmental. But we are contributing to global emissions with imported coal, which we are not bothered about.
The use of coal is definitely not the perfect solution. But what do we do? Given the crisis, we have few alternatives. In the instance of extracting natural resources, there is some damage to the environment. However, we have to think about how to reduce this damage.
In 2012, when the coal plan was scrapped, the energy situation was different. Fuel prices and energy regimes were different. We have to correct our course and look into this. The choice is very simple: if we do not want to take the risk of coal because of environmental risks, if we don't want to take the risk that comes with exploring gas because of high financial risks, then we have to bear the risk of the international market. And that is exactly what is happening right now.