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Energy imbroglio

January 13, 2013

For the past many days — since last Christmas — the sun has been hiding behind a dense cloud cover that is occasionally buttressed by alternating sheets of mist and fog.

The winters in Lahore — and in most of the Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Azad Kashmir — are only tolerable because of the sunshine which casts a warm mellow glow over the city, allowing frozen limbs to thaw and blood to course through veins.

With most gas appliances giving up the ghost after an initial splutter, solar energy has taken on a whole new meaning and significance in the lives of the grea, unwashed, shivering masses.

During winter, gas utilities resort to ‘load management, whereby gas supply to power stations, fertiliser plants, industrial units and CNG stations is suspended or severely curtailed in order to ensure uninterrupted supply to residential consumers.

But during the particularly prolonged and harsh current cold spell the gas diverted from these large bulk supply consumers is obviously not proving sufficient for meeting the peak gas demand of domestic consumers, who have consequently been forced to relying on firewood and coal briquettes for cooking,

The extent of their suffering remains largely unnoticed because unlike industrial groups and associations, they are neither united as pressure groups nor can afford to place display advertisements in leading newspapers to draw attention to their plight.

They are also not motivated enough to assemble in large numbers outside gas distribution company offices in peaceful protest, and thus become highly visible like the vehicles lined up in endless queues at CNG stations, sometimes for days.

Where has the gas gone? Are the limited reserves available locally being utilised in the most effective manner? One of the biggest blunders of recent times has been the use of compressed natural gas (CNG) in the transport sector. Its use in public buses could be justified but why should people who can afford to buy and maintain vehicles be subsidisd by year round supply of cheap CNG, and which, moreover, displaces its use for value addition instead by industrial consumers forcing them to switch to expensive diesel?

Under such circumstances many small-scale enterprises just shut down shop and send their workers home, thus leading to mass unrest and unemployment. Demand from domestic consumers, on the other hand, remains fairly low throughout the year except for the brief winter spell in the upper parts of the country.

The attitude of successive governments to securing assured, dedicated and affordable energy supplies and thus ensuring the country’s energy security, has been ambivalent and cavalier. This has had a devastating effect on the economy which has recorded abysmal growth rates.

Even before the law and order situation in Balochistan deterred exploration efforts there, the country was seriously examining the possibility of importing natural gas from three possible sources — Turkmenistan across Afghanistan which was then, as now, in turmoil; Qatar via an offshore pipeline; and Iran.

Governments have dithered over these options for almost two decades and failed to decide on any one option exclusively.

Hydropower is also an option that has fallen victim to inter-provincial wrangling.

Therefore the government has flirted with ‘quick-fix’ solutions, such as the disastrous rental power projects, and the import of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). But these too have not provided any relief. On the other hand the utilities have also not tackled with any seriousness the gas ‘lost’ through pilferage and corruption, worth billions of rupees a year. We are now well and truly back in the Dark Ages. Will the government not get serious even now?