Our own resources can help us get over the energy crisis
The present energy and power crises that Bangladesh faces did not befall us all of a sudden. It has been predicted for quite some time as energy experts in the country noticed a gradual fall in local gas production levels. Gas being the main energy source in the country, a decline in gas production led the government to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) in a bid to offset the supply shortfall. But that actually backfired because of the high price of LNG getting even higher, thanks to the Russia-Ukraine war that broke out in late February. Policymakers in Bangladesh have now come to realise that a major mistake was made by not carrying out large-scale gas exploration in the country over the last 20 years, which could have replenished the consumed gas as the years went by. But the realisation came too late, and not before the country once again embraced episodes of load-shedding soon after the well-publicised "electricity for all" declaration.
But why is there not enough exploration to meet the gas shortfall? Bangladesh's success ratio is 3.5:1, meaning we get one commercial gas discovery if we drill three and a half wells on an average. This success ratio is well above the world average. The last three wells drilled in Bangladesh led to one successful discovery (Zakiganj), meaning that the success ratio remains valid till date. On the contrary, the exploration rate in Bangladesh is too low. In the last 22 years, Bangladesh has drilled 28 exploration wells, meaning 1.2 exploration wells were drilled per year on average. This is too low a rate of exploration by any standard for a proven hydrocarbon basin. Bangladesh has an area of over 147,000 sq-km and has drilled 98 exploratory gas wells so far. In comparison, the state of Tripura in India (adjacent to Bangladesh), which has an area of 10,000 sq-km, has drilled 160 exploratory wells.
Gas exploration and reserves issues are often discussed and argued upon in a funny manner in Bangladesh. In 1998, the US-based Occidental Petroleum Corporation discovered a large gas field named Bibiyana in Sylhet. The company came up with a proposal for the government to export the gas produced in Bibiyana to India, apparently for a quick profit recovery. A group of people with vested interests launched a campaign to facilitate gas export. As part of the campaign, they floated a theory that Bangladesh was floating on gas. But ultimately the whole issue was put to rest by a pointed statement from the then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in a meeting with the visiting US President Bill Clinton, that Bangladesh would not export gas without keeping 50 years of reserve for its own use. This was a bold move which eventually buried the gas export syndrome for good in Bangladesh.
More than 20 years later, the gas issue surfaced once again, this time with a suggestion that the gas reserve in Bangladesh has been almost depleted. It is suggested that there are little chances of finding new gas and therefore Bangladesh needs to depend on LNG import to meet its gas needs. LNG is a costly fuel and may not be sustainably procured from a volatile international market – at least at present, as well as in the near future because of the sky-high prices. The Russia-Ukraine war has made the situation worse mainly because of the Russian gas embargo by European countries who are entering the LNG market. So the demand for LNG in the international market will increase – as will the price.
What is the size of "yet to find" (i.e. undiscovered) gas resources in Bangladesh? International and national geoscience communities are both in agreement that the Bengal delta (Bangladesh), like the other delta basins in the world, is inherently gas-rich. There have been several assessments by international geoscience agencies as to how much undiscovered gas still remains under the ground. One of these is the United States Geological Survey (USGS)-Petrobangla joint assessment, which was released in 2001. It concluded that the undiscovered gas resource in Bangladesh is 32.5 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) in 50 percent probability. This study did not include the potential gas reserves in the deep sea area.
Lately, certain senior members of the energy sector in the government have been suggesting that the USGS did not apply proper methodology and inflated the numbers while assessing the undiscovered gas probability of Bangladesh. But they did not mention any specific fault or weakness of the methodology discussed in the report. They tried to relate the USGS with those groups who initiated the "floating on gas" theory apparently to facilitate gas export. But the fact we all know is that it was the profit-driven Occident oil company who was behind the campaign.
The USGS is a non-profit scientific organisation whose methodology of research is accepted all over the world. The USGS applies this methodology to periodically assess undiscovered gas in the US as well as in other countries. It defines the total petroleum system (TPS) of an assessed area using the geological and geophysical data. In Bangladesh's assessment, the database was provided by Petrobangla and the work was done by a joint team of the USGS and Petrobangla.
In 2001, the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD), jointly with the Hydrocarbon Unit (HCU) of Bangladesh's energy ministry, made another assessment and concluded that the undiscovered gas in Bangladesh amounted to 42 Tcf in 50 percent probability. NDP is a state-run oil and gas company in Norway. A third assessment, done as late as in 2018 by a European agency named Ramboll, suggested that the undiscovered gas resource of Bangladesh was as much as 34 Tcf, a significant volume that could almost double Bangladesh's current gas production level if all geological areas were explored and developed properly.
How good is the offshore gas prospect? To say the least, references may be made, for example, to one presentation at the SEAPEX Conference in Singapore in 2019 by a group of geoscientists from an oil company working in Bangladesh. The presentation, based on the 2D and 3D seismic surveys in Bangladesh offshore block SS 11, pointed out that this block, located 60km northwest of the multi-TCF Shwe gas project (offshore discovery in Myanmar) occupies the same play (meaning gas accumulation pattern) fairway trend and has genetically similar play types and drillable structures.
It is clear from the discussion above that all the studies done jointly or singularly by international and national agencies on the undiscovered gas repositories are in agreement that Bangladesh still has a significant amount of undiscovered gas under the ground. The notion that the country has exhausted its gas resources has no scientific basis. Bangladesh still has high hopes of coming out of the present energy crisis by engaging in extensive exploration to find the yet to find gas resources. In this case, science should dictate the course of action rather than politics.
Dr Badrul Imam is an honorary professor at the Department of Geology of Dhaka University.