China and Pakistan have recently entered into an agreement to launch work on the Thar coal project. The Chinese company, Shenhau group will undertake the project on Build-Own-Operate (BOO) basis and will be responsible for investment, construction and operation, while Pakistan will provide it with the project site and necessary infrastructure.

The Chinese company would set-up a power plant of 330MW by extracting coal from an area of 50sq km. The entire mining area is spread over 9100sq km with rich reserves that may last for more than 30 years.

Thar coalfield is spread over 9100sq km with the dimensions of 140km (north south) and 65km (east west) in Thar. There are 2,700 million tons measured deposits; 9395 million tons indicated, 50,706 million tons inferred, and 112705 million tons hypothetical deposits making a total 175.506 billion tons. The studies have confirmed the thickest coal bed is called, the Thar coal. It is present between 150 and 203 meters depth. The seam attains a maximum thickness of 22.1 meters with around 15 meters in most of the area. The cumulative coal thickness varies between 7.15 and 36.00 meters. The thickness of overburden varies from 114 to over 200 meters and sand dunes above the average ground level in the area increased by another 30 meters. These deposits will be dug out by open pit mining process, which is much economical than other underground hazardous mining methods. The coalfield rests directly on relatively shallow, rifted basement rocks of the pre-Cambrian age.

Qualitative analyses: Thar coal is classified as lignite A-B. The quality has been determined on the basis of chemical analyses of more than 2000 samples. The moisture and ash contents of Thar coal when compared to other lignite deposits of the world show that these are quite favourable for power generation. The average chemical analyses of coal samples from the entire area percentage wise are as under:

The moisture (AR) 46.77 per cent, the ash (AR) 6.24 per cent, volatile matters (AR) 23.42 per cent, volatile matters (DAF) 58.91 per cent, the fixed carbon (AR) 16.66 per cent, sulphur (AR) 1.16 per cent and the heating value (AR) 5774 Btu/lb.

Potential use of Thar black gold: Pakistan spends Rs66 billion on the import of furnace oil, annually. The coal exploration and development will give rise to use it as an alternative source of power generation. Thus, the country can save Rs4-5 billion by utilizing the domestic coal reserves. By using coal in the cement industry, about 50 per cent saving on the import of furnace oil bill of Rs240 million in short term, and 100 per cent in the long term can be achieved. This will also result in 30 per cent reduction in the cost of production.

The quality and the vast reserves of Thar coal are suitable for power generation. The low ash and to some extent the sulphur contents and the reasonable heating value are plus points. The sulphur content is certainly much lower than other coals of Pakistan. Hence, its use in power generation will have lesser detrimental effects on the environment. The proven reserves for the establishment of four power generation units (4000MW) would last for a period of 30 years, or so. Besides, the Thar coal can possibly be used to produce smokeless briquettes for commercial use and in cement and sugar industry as a substitute for furnace oil or gas.

Exploration background: The former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, performed the groundbreaking ceremony of the 1320MW coal-fired power plant in January 19,1995. This plant was to be established at the village Thahario Halepoto near Islamkot town of Tharparkar district, by a Hong Kong based company of Gordon Woo. Unfortunately, in 1995-97, two most powerful lobbies pro-Kala Bagh Dam and oil importing companies were believed to be at loggerhead with the Sindh Coal Authority (SCA) and the government of Sindh. Consequently, the proposed coal-based power plant that was supposed to be established in Thar was first shifted to Keti Bandar and later on was shelved. The SCA is assigned to carry out feasibility study of the Thar coal for assessing the extraction cost and selling price of the coal for power generation and other uses. This study will be completed in 2003. Coal as a fuel presently costs 60 t0 65 paisa per kWh that is far cheaper than the furnace oil.

Meanwhile, the Geological Survey of Pakistan has awarded the contract to Bakht Business to sink an exploratory shaft in Thar coalfield for preparing a final bankable feasibility for the coal mining. These samples will be used for carrying out combustion engineering tests during the exploratory process to determine the suitability level of coal in using it in the power generation, cement, and the sugar industries.

Besides, the Chinese experts will also carryout 120-130 more bore holes in all four blocks of the Thar field during its feasibility study, besides carrying out technical and financial studies. This indicates that the Chinese group is being awarded the contract before the completion of studies to determine the extracting cost and the selling price of coal, as well as its various uses.

Issues and options: While utilizing the coal reserves it will be necessary to have a critical view for the mining, the technology to be used for power generation and other related questions. This is very important because some products of coal combustion have detrimental effects on environment. The burning of coal produces carbondioxide, among other byproducts. Environmentalists believe that, owing to the widespread use of coal and other fossil fuels, the amount of carbondioxide in earth’s atmosphere could increase to such an extent that changes in the climate will occur. The sulphur and the nitrogen in coal form oxides during combustion that can contribute to the formation of acid rains. However, sulphurdioxide emissions from new the coal-fired facilities are now controlled in many countries.

The experience of Lakhra may not be repeated, where power plant is on death throes and the coal is being used in brick kilns. It is hoped that with the utilization of coal, the destiny of Thar will change, therefore the wealth generated through black gold should be utilized in this backward area and its people. When we talk about maximum benefits that does not only mean jobs, royalty, compensation of lands etc., but also productive and developmental investment to change the agriculture and livestock breeding of the area which may result in sustainable development of the area. How this will be done? How money will be spent and how much local people will actually be benefited. There are some reservations, which require proper answer.

1. The underground mining can result in black lung disease for miners, and the sinking of land over mines, and the drainage of acid into water tables, therefore all requirement regarding safe coal mining may be fulfilled. Surface mining would require careful reclamation, and the land would render unproductive. This includes the methodology of mining, reducing damages and the apprehensions.

2. The clean technology should be used because burning of coal produces carbondioxide, among other byproducts.

3. How this wealth would be spent? Who will own and control the wealth produced by the black gold? There are reports that the Sindh Coal Authority is being sidelined and the Geological Survey of Pakistan and the federal ministry of petroleum and natural resources have practically taken over the things. This indicates that the federal government is going to take over the control of the minerals.

4. What local people will get in terms of facilities, jobs, royalty, compensation for their land, and overall compensation for environment/eco-system.

5. Only construction of few roads and setting up shops of consumer items or few unskilled jobs would not change the pattern and the economy of this backward area. Two things are worth mentioning, among which one is Badin district, which is known as mini Dubai due to its oil wells, but nothing has been changed for the common man of the area. The other is Bhitt Jabal of Dadu district, where infrastructure of road etc., has been laid but the pattern of economy for the common man has not been changed. Are we going to repeat the above two experiences in Thar or is there more in the bag for the Thari people?

There is a need to develop alternate source of living. This can be achieved by developing water resources for the agriculture, and the cattle breeding, as Saudi Arabia and some other countries have done by utilizing the wealth generated from the oil. The coal is the last hope for the development of this backward area, which is hit by droughts periodically due to the scarcity of rains, therefore it should be properly and carefully utilized.

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