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From Thar coal to utility poles: Power politics in Pakistan

September 19, 2012

Thar coal reserves.

Until recently he was a national hero. Today he stands accused of being ‘intellectually dishonest’ and a ‘fraud’.

The rise and fall of Dr. Samar Mubarakmand, the man who rose to prominence for his involvement with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, reveals a story of technological hyperboles and lack of transparency while millions of dollars were invested in a project whose feasibility reports have not been made public. All what is known about the project are the claims by Dr. Mubarakmand about the coal gasification project based on Thar coal to generate the much needed electricity in Pakistan.

The huge gap between the demand and supply of electricity in Pakistan has exposed the State’s failure in delivering a product to the market where sufficient willingness to pay exists. While the masses complain of high utility rates, they are in fact more peeved at the fact that despite their willingness to pay higher utility rates, the State is unable to supply electricity. The result is power outages lasting six to 18 hours a day affecting residential, commercial, and industrial sectors.

Because of the energy crisis, commerce and manufacturing in Pakistan have collapsed to a near default state. The export sector can no longer deliver on contracts because erratic power supply makes it impossible to adhere to production schedules. Ordinary citizens are subjected to a mass hysteria in an environment where bathing, cooking, or reading can no longer be planned. Even the comics have resorted to parodies wondering why there is no electricity in Pakistan (Baboo Rana’s Saademulkichbijliji!)

Given that the energy crisis has challenged Pakistan over the past several decades, one would have hoped to see a quicker and robust response to energy shortfall using Pakistan’s natural resources. However, the inability to govern and deliver has plagued several military and civilian governments in Pakistan. Despite the fact that Thar coal reserves were discovered in 1991, more than 20 years hence not much electricity has been generated from the estimated 175-billion tonnes of coal reserves.

The purpose of this commentary is not to scapegoat Dr. Mubarakmand. The failure of the State to govern and provide may not be attributed to an individual functionary. The purpose, however, is to highlight the procedural shortcomings of a renowned and respected technologist in creating a transparent governance structure around his pet project, and the complacency of Pakistan’s Planning Commission when it failed to identify the most feasible alternatives and paths to development and prosperity.

Instead of detailed project feasibility reports about the Thar coal gasification prospects what one sees are claims, insults, and accusations being traded on print and electronic media. Dr. Mubarakmand, who is a member of the Planning Commission for science and technology, has stuck to his claim that he can generate electricity from Thar coal, which he would make available at 4 rupees per unit (approximately 4 Cents US per kWh). He further claims that Thar coal has the capacity to generate 50,000 MW (at times he has claimed 80,000 MW) and 100 million barrels of oil (diesel) for the next 500 years. He believes Thar coal reserves are valued at US$25 trillion. Shahid Sattar, who is also a member of the Planning Commission for energy, has serious reservations about Dr. Mubarakmand’s claims for generating power from coal gasification. A recent audit by the Planning Commission found Dr. Mubarakmand’s project infeasible.

The political leadership has also aligned against Dr. Mubarakmand. A Senate committee comprising of senators from the Awami National Party and the ruling PPP declared Dr. Mubarakmand’s project a fraud. Dr. Qadeer Khan, another former member of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, has accused Dr. Mubarakmand of intellectual dishonesty.  The criticism by politicians and others of Dr. Mubarakmand’s plan has resulted in shaving his originally planned 100 MW prototype plant (for which he sought another 9.9 billion rupees (US$105 million) in January 2012) to a 10 MW plant. He told The News in January 2012 that the project was expected to cost $250 million.

Raked over the coals for black diamonds

It was around early 2010 that Dr. Mubarakmand announced plans to use Thar coal for power generation. His plans entailed using a process called gasification to turn coal into gas which is used to generate electricity by either directly being fed to move turbines or is used to produce steam, which in turn moves turbines. He has always claimed of coming up with indigenous technology for gasification and capturing and storing carbon. He has even hinted at building turbines and other power generating equipment in Pakistan to save foreign exchange. However, when the critics started raising doubts about the feasibility of his plans, the learned scientist did not offer any technical evidence. His only explanation was that he had ordered the wells to be closed and hence no evidence of high BTU gas was available to the inspection teams!

If he were a politician, I would not expect him to offer proofs for his claims. But he is Pakistan’s top scientist, owing his stature at the Planning Commission. One expects to see a detailed feasibility study in support of his claims. He has been repeating ad nauseam the capacity to generate 50,000 MW of electricity which he would sell at 4 rupees per kWh (one unit). But where is the proof that this is really possible? And more importantly, can it all be done in a reasonable time? What about the detractors’ claim that by the time Dr. Mubarakmand’s experimental designs move from prototypes to scale implementation, many a governments would have been voted out by the electorate.

It is important to bring scientific evidence to bear on the controversy that surrounds Thar coal and its potential for Pakistan. In the following paragraphs I will share some scientific evidence that suggests that we might have been oversold on Thar coal.

It has been accepted as the gospel truth that the Thar coal reserves stand at 175 billion tonnes. Up until 2005, however, the Geological Survey of Pakistan reported only 2.7 billion tonnes of measured coal reserves. The remaining 172 billion tonnes of coal fell under hypothetical (undiscovered), inferred, and indicated category. This could be the reason why the United States Department of Energy (as reported by Dow Jones Newswire on April 29, 2002) estimated Pakistan’s recoverable coal reserves around 3 billion tonnes. Could this be the reason why Pakistan has a lower than expected international interest in the Thar coal fields where the mine-able coal may be an order of magnitude less than what Pakistan has claimed over the years. Furthermore, Thar coal reserves have been classified as lignite coal, which is considered a low-rank coal.

Specific Blocks at Thar coal fields

Area (

Drill Holes

Reserves (million tonnes)






Block-I (SV) 122.0 41 620 1918 1028 - 3566
Block-II (SB) 55.0 43 640 944 - - 1584
Block-III (ST) 99.5 41 411 1337 258 - 2006
Block-IV (SA) 80.0 42 637 1640 282 - 2559
Sub Total (Block-I - IV) 356.5 167 2308 5839 1568 - 9715
Rest of Thar Coalfield 8643.5 50 392 3556 49138 112705 165791
Total (Thar Coalfield) 9000 217 2700 9395 50706 112705 175506
Source: Geological Survey of Pakistan,March, 1993, Revised in March 2005

Gas pains

The underground coal gasification (UCG) is not a new technology. However, its applications, especially in combination with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), are rare and in experimental stage even in advanced economies. Even back in 1986, before Thar coal was discovered, Ahmad Mumtaz and Arshad Khan published a paper in the journal Energy where they discussed the ‘prospects for coal gasification in Pakistan’.* Neither the technology, nor its potential use in Pakistan are novel concepts. Thus, one eagerly waits to learn what innovations have taken place in Pakistan that will bring the cost of producing electricity using UCG to such low levels that Dr. Mubarakmand will be able to sell electricity at 4 rupees per unit.

While providing cheap electricity can be a cheap political stunt, it cannot be matter of dubious public policy. Is it really possible to generate clean electricity using UCG with CCS at Thar for the price point claimed by Dr. Mubarakmand? Scientific literature suggests otherwise. In a paper published in1984 in the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change the authors simulated costs for producing electricity using various fuels. They concluded that it was “highly unlikely that coal gasification process could produce high BTU gas more cheaply than the price at which natural gas is likely to be available.”

Recent studies in fact put price premium of up to 80 per cent for generating electricity with carbon capture, as is envisaged in Thar’s case. In a submission to the US Senate in May 2011, Scott Klara, deputy director of the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, stated that the commercially available carbon capturing technologies may add 35 per cent to the cost of electricity for a UCG plant. The DoE official advised the Senate committee that the clean coal power initiative in the US received $800m to fund two pre-combustion and two post-combustion plants in addition to another integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plant.

The important consideration here is that none of these plants are operational and are expected to be on line during 2013 and 2015. Another study in 2007 by the US Department of Energy found that under most scenarios electricity generated by natural gas was far cheaper than the one produced by UCG with carbon capture. The capital costs of a natural gas operated plant with carbon capture technology were double than the one without it.*

In Alberta, Canada, the City of Edmonton has also embarked on similar plans to build a near-zero emission coal-fired plant with a 270 MW generating capacity. However, the officials admitted that electricity generated from clean coal technologies with carbon capture “could be about 50 per cent more expensive than a conventional plant.” It is rather surprising to see that the City of Edmonton is willing to generate electricity at a much higher cost even when Alberta is flush with oil extracted from the Tar Sands. Furthermore, the Edmonton plant is also slated to be on line in 2015.

Without carbon capture coal is a four letter word

One has to in fact appreciate the motivation behind huge investments made in the clean coal technology in the West. Given that there is no power generation crisis in North America and Western Europe where the generated electricity exceeds the demand, the focus is on global warming and the adverse impact of CO2 on health and environment. The negative externalities resulting from the use of fossil fuels, which have been quantified to a large extent in the West, are the motivation behind investing in carbon capture and storage technologies. Pakistan, on the other hand, is facing an energy crisis with huge gaps between demand and supply of electricity. One wonders if Pakistan can have the luxury of investing in technology that may put power tariffs beyond the reach of the middle and lower middle classes.

While Dr. Mubarakmand’s 100 MW power plant using UCG has been in the news, there are however other projects in various stages of approval and execution to generate power from Thar coal reserves. These plants are expected to generate anywhere between 2,350 MW to 3,450 MW from Thar coal. The British, Chinese, and Middle East-based sponsors are willing to invest in Thar coal. The goal for the government should be to facilitate investments by the private sector rather than trying to become a power producer in the country. While some may want to see a state-owned enterprise generating electricity in Pakistan, I put my faith in the private sector. After all, we have all witnessed the state of disrepair at other state-owned enterprises in Pakistan, namely, Pakistan Steel Mills, PIA, and Pakistan Railways.

Generation Capacity (MW)

Companies generating power at Thar




Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company 600 1,000 Block - II
Cougar Energy UK, underground coal gasification 400 400 Block - III
Bin Dean Group 1,000  1,000 Block - IV
Planning Commission, underground coal gasification 50 50 Block - V
Oracle Coalfield PLC (UK) 300 1,000 Block - VI
Total 2,350 3,450  
Source: Economic Survey of Pakistan, 2011-2012

It is also important for the government not to botch these investments in power generation. In 1994, Hong Kong-based investor Gordon Wu brought Consolidated Electric Power Asia Ltd. (CEPA) to Pakistan to invest $5.5 in coal-fired power plant to generate 5,280 MW of electricity and another $2 billion to build the transmission infrastructure. The plan was to initially import coal until Thar reserves were ready to be mined. The Benazir government took years to finalise the deal for concerns about the location of the plant and the suspicion that CEPA may not use Thar coal after all. The project was finally signed in June 1996, but was overturned by the Nawaz Sharif government in June 1997 citing high tariffs, which CEPA disputed.

Given the energy crisis in Pakistan, expensive power is preferred over no power. I have lived last year for a few weeks in Bahria Town in Rawalpindi where the electricity supply was not interrupted by the power outages. The Town’s administration bought power from the government and other private producers of electricity. During power outages, the Town’s administration would source electricity from a different supplier ensuring uninterrupted power supply to the residents who were willing to pay higher utility rates for the comfort of having uninterrupted supply of electricity.

If Malik Riaz of Bahria Town can provide uninterrupted power supply, the government of Pakistan should be able to do the same elsewhere.

*Mumtaz, Ahmad and Arshad M. Khan (1986). Prospects for coal gasification in Pakistan. Energy. Vol. 11, No. 11/12. Pp. 1103-1111.

**James A. Xander; MedhiIranmanesh; Douglas McNiel; Kenneth R. White(July 1984). Coal gasification: An economic evaluation. Technological Forecasting and Social Change. 25 (4), pp. 309-327.

***US Department of Energy (2007). Cost and baseline performance for fossil energy plants.


Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.