Coal: The whole picture (The Financial Express (Bangladesh))

Bangladesh’s Coal Power Generation Company and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) agreed last week to build the 4.7 billion USD 1,320 megawatt (MW) Matabari energy-producing plant by August 2022. Vaunted as the country’s la…

Bangladesh’s Coal Power Generation Company and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) agreed last week to build the 4.7 billion USD 1,320 megawatt (MW) Matabari energy-producing plant by August 2022. Vaunted as the country’s largest investment project, it will process 4.0 million tons of Australian, Indonesian, and South African coal off the Cox’s Bazar coast, boost the power capacity growth-rate to 15% (from the projected 7.3% in fiscal 2014-5), and feed an ostensibly middle-income country’s needs. Fulfilling those targets means dissolving dichotomies between private and public investment, diverse foreign investment sources, environmental threats from unregulated investment, as well as protecting the non-economic underbelly of that economically-driven middle-income pursuit.

The country’s only other coal-based producer, the 1,320 MW Barapukuria Coal Power Plant in Dudhipur, Dinajpur, is a public-sector project (operated by the Bangladesh Power Development Board – BPDB – through the Power Grid Company of Bangladesh). By opening the door to private coal entrepreneurs, Matabari upholds the country’s silent neo-liberal subscription, carrying, as it does, the seeds of efficient production (minimising costs while maximising production and consumers), against the typically slothful, corrupt, and mismanaged public sector traits. Along with Barapukuria, it spearheads the long-term plan to build eight large-scale and 10 small-scale coal-fuelled thermal plants from domestic and foreign inputs.

Whereas Barapukuria mines the 3.0 billion tonnes of steam grade bituminous coal discovered in 2013 across the north-west (in Barapukuria, Dighipara, Jamalganj, Khalashpur, and Philban) to feed north-west consumers (in Bogra, Rangpur, and Saidpur), Matabari externalises coal operations to supply the faster-growing south (Matabari itself is densely populated), hoping to expand the coal share of energy. In 2010, for instance, coal-produced energy only amounted to 230 kV out of the total 5,823 kV in the country. Narrowing the skewed gap and engaging the private sector to catalyse change do not displace the public sector: the controversial Rampal Coal Power Plant proposal involves a BPDB partnership with India’s National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), while awarding India’s Adani Power two coal-fired plants in June 2015 shows that the private sector is being wooed, not shooed.

This private-public matrix is pivotal to quenching the exploding demand. The 7,000 MW produced today not only falls short of demands by 1,500 MW, but will rise to 24,000 by 2021 and 40,000 MW by 2030. Needless to say, the government increased its power-based investment allocation in the current fiscal year by 40%. Yet, since it must more than double its 5,000 MW electricity import from India in the next two years, softening its Indian dependence is due.

Even as a possible answer, diversifying external supplies opens another can of worms. With Matabari, Japan joins India as a foreign coal stakeholder, just as China hoped on board with Barapukuria: East China Electric Power Design Institute, Schenzen Energy Engineering Corporation, and Shanghai Electric Group participated to build Barapukuria, just as Matabari construction has been entrusted to Japan’s Sumitomo and Marubeni corporations. Adding India’s Adani to the burgeoning foreign coal investor list cannot conceal the high voltage competition between China, India, and Japan elsewhere across Asia. If this is entering our own backyard, how we play our cards may have more spillovers than generating energy: power-politics opens opportunities to select the most efficient and environmentally-friendly corporation?provided we get our act together.

Environmental consciousness has been subordinated to our energy needs. Rampal needs over a billion dollars from abroad but keeps succumbing to that environmental disregard: Norway’s Government Pension Funds Global, Germany’s Deutsche Bank, and France’s Credit Agricole SA Group, Societe Generale, and BNP Paribus cancelled their interest for that reason. With Rampal merely 14-km away from the world’s largest mangrove, the World Heritage Committee and UNESCO went all-out to prevent inevitable spoilage. Matabari carries a similar threat profile: the Sonadia environmentally critical area, also 15-km away, is threatened, as too shrimp farming (Transparency International Bangladesh even documented, in an April 2015 report, the widespread and blatant corruption upon which Matabari is premised).

Bangladesh’s 1996 National Energy Policy targeted 2020 for energy self-sufficiency even before the middle-income goal emerged. However, emphasising “energy audit, reduction of wastage, demand management, and efficient usage” is not enough to redress environmental threats or promote environmental safeguards. Barapukuria was, no doubt, still a decade ahead then, but as the Rampal controversy exposes, these have not entered the equation even now.

Adding and subtracting the pros and cons of coal-based energy growth do not augur well for a middle-income culture. Whereas any per capita income above US$ 1,035 and below $12,616 gets us into that seemingly auspicious bracket, to savour the monetary rewards entailed, we would have to wear gas-mask protective gear against pollution, even pump oxygen artificially to compensate for the increased carbon emissions.

Bangladesh has a poor record in balancing material pursuits with Mother Nature, which is ironic placed against the Tagorian Amar Sonar Bangla vision. Nationalism, globalisation, competition, prosperity, and sustainability exert equally powerful forces upon our interests and considerations. Giving them equal weight buys us more time.