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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Thar Coal: Pakistan’s Energy Game Changer

Combustion of coal is considered outdated, but gasification is the best way forward to reduce our energy import bill. The glittering black gold can be put to use, and fuel should only be imported for transportation purposes, while all other needs should be met indigenously.

William Shakespeare famously said, “All that glitters is not gold.” In the 16th century, Shakespeare concluded that appearances can be deceptive. The moral-laden story of the Stag, proud of its horns but apologetic about its thin, ugly legs, has been consistently ignored by successive generations. When the hounds attacked, the trapped Stag ran desperately to save its life, but its horns got entangled in the bushes, leading to its demise. The pride in its horns caused its downfall. Since the fateful party-less elections of 1985, we have been chasing the glitter of short-term gains, neglecting our legs, which are essential for mobility and safety, crucial for survival and prosperity.

I vividly recall my late mother’s words, “Your life is in your legs.” Unfortunately, in her later years, when she refused to walk, I kept reminding her of her own words, but she was disinterested and responded with, “We will perish before you realize.” Indeed, it marked the end of her journey as she prepared for the next. As a nation, our stagnation may signal the end of our journey.

Glitter, appearance, deceit, and short-term gains have become the norm in the land of the pure since the dreadful night of July 5, 1977, when Zia deposed the elected government of Bhutto, promising elections within 90 days. His rule lasted for 11 years. When he perished in August 1988, there was a sigh of relief, but the damage had been done. Most civilian institutions became non-functional, and crises became the norm.

However, the Sui Gas Reserve, a gift from the founding fathers, provided much-needed fuel for the country. Discovered in 1952 with 12 TCF (Trillion Cubic Feet), it was one of the world’s largest natural gas deposits, which could have lasted for 100 years. Due to gross mismanagement and misuse, it was reduced to 2 TCF in 2002, leading to a severe energy crisis. Currently, LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) is being imported from Qatar. Once an energy surplus nation, today the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is facing a fuel shortage.

Read more: Pakistan coal miners scared to work after Hazara killings

Understanding the matter better

In 1991, the Thar Coal field was discovered by joint exploration teams from the Geological Survey of Pakistan and the United States Geological Survey. With 175 billion tons, it is one of the world’s largest unexplored deposits since Sui Gas was readily available after its discovery in 1952. When the commission and kickback hounds came after us, we were left with no indigenous fuel option. Like the Stag, our horns got stuck, and we had neither fuel nor the funds to import it. In 2004, under the professional leadership of Dr. Akram Sheikh, the Planning Commission formed an “Energy Foresight Committee.” As the Chairman of the Pakistan Science Foundation (PSF), I was assigned the task of reviewing the potential of Thar Coal as an energy resource for the country.

Mining, with water both above and below the coal seam, was identified as a major challenge. Several other unconfirmed false myths about the deposit were circulating. There was organized propaganda against the use of our own energy resource, claiming that coal is high in sulfur (untrue, with 1% sulfur content), not mineable due to water presence (now two mines are operational after water pumping), and has low heating value due to high moisture content (40%, which can be drastically reduced to 10% through air drying). Gasification of coal was considered a serious challenge, but coal has been successfully gasified in Lahore, with full characterization underway in South Africa.

Thar Coal is, indeed, the energy game-changer for Pakistan. It may not glitter, but it is gold for an energy-starved nation that had to spend over $20 billion on fuel imports last year, leading to a serious trade deficit and budget imbalance. Since 2004, it has been my crusade to fight against entrenched impediments and vested groups that have always hindered our development and growth. In 1952, our founding fathers gifted us the Sui Gas deposit, and in 2023, we will leave no stone unturned until the ‘Black Gold’ of Thar provides us with the much-needed energy security and self-sufficiency.

The Dakota Gasification Company in North Dakota uses similar coal to produce SNG (Synthetic Natural Gas), diesel, urea, naphtha, phenol, tar oil, ammonium sulfate, anhydrous ammonia, and liquid nitrogen. With the discovery of shale gas in the USA, SNG at $6 per MMBTU is not feasible for them, but for us, it is viable as the cost of imported LNG has exceeded $20 per MMBTU, which is beyond our reach.

Read more: Pakistan to move towards coal-based power generation

Combustion of coal is considered outdated, but gasification is the best way forward to reduce our energy import bill. The glittering black gold can be put to use, and fuel should only be imported for transportation purposes, while all other needs should be met indigenously. Food and fuel are the basic needs of the nation and must be within reach of the common man. Due to defective policies of the past, the country produces the most expensive electricity and gas, making them unaffordable and leading to a huge circular debt. It is payback time, with our own black gold waiting to be mined and utilized with environmentally friendly 21st-century technologies.

Spread over an area of approximately 1,000 square kilometers, Thar has the potential to become the energy center of the entire region.


The writer is Ex-Chairman Pakistan Science Foundation. He can be reached at  fmaliks@hotmail.com. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.