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Thar coal: keeping options open

May 29, 2012

COAL deposits in the Thar Desert are a national asset that can solve our energy problem if utilised and exploited properly. Unfortunately the concept of underground gasification of this coal is being promoted as the only viable solution to Pakistan’s energy shortages and anyone questioning the technical aspect and economic viability of this concept is immediately called an agent of some lobby and branded as a traitor.

However, the persons pushing this flawed concept down the throat of this nation do not come forward before any professional forum to explain and justify their preposterous claim about producing electricity at Rs4 per kilowatt, and millions of barrels of diesel at $40/barrel.

According to experts producing 80,000 MW electricity and millions of barrels of various bio fuels worldwide through underground coal gasification are patently false and misleading. The examples of South Africa and other countries, blithely quoted in TV talk shows conveniently neglect to mention that gasification of coal is in fact done in these countries and electricity and bio-fuels are produced, but it is done through a chemical process by using steam and catalytic agents in chemical reactors and not by burning coal, either above or below ground.

The biggest casualty of UCG in Thar will be the contamination of groundwater, the Sindh government has paid $10 million for studies done by internationally credible firms like RWE, SRK and Hagler Bailly which have concluded that the main groundwater aquifer in Thar contains 4,500 to 6,500 parts per million (ppm). Total dissolved salts (TDS) as compared to sea water which has over 35000 ppm. The provincial government is installing 31 desalination plants to make this water available to people living in Thar as a drinking water resource.

The groundwater in Thar not only serves as a drinking water resource for the people of the entire dessert but is also a strategic asset for Pakistan’s security forces who has always taken a keen interest in it. The Thar has been an important theatre in both the 1965 and 1971 wars; preservation of this vital strategic resource should be of paramount significance. Have the proponents of UCG taken this aspect into account, as the project they undertake will ultimately kill, maim and destroy living beings, because without any doubt, UCG will introduce chemicals such as benzene, toulene, phenolic compounds, poly aromatic hydrocarbons, etc, into the groundwater that would cause cancer and other diseases in Thar.

ZAHOOR ABBASI San Diego, California