Reaching for the black gold at Thar - Pakistan Today

Reaching for the black gold at Thar

The story of the coal gasification power plant 

On August 14, 2018, I stood at the base of Pakistan’s first open-pit coal mine to touch the black gold hidden under the sand at Thar. It was a proud moment for all of us. With me were two other major players who turned this dream into reality. Shamsuddin Sheikh as Chief Executive Officer of Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC) led from the front and Nauman Dar, the former President of Habib Bank Limited (HBL), who agreed to provide funds. It was because of three of us together with the SECMC team that a solution to our energy crisis is within sight today.

After the discovery of huge reserves of natural gas in 1952 at Sui the energy requirements of the country were catered for. At 12 trillion cubic feet it was one of the largest deposits of the world of its time. Due to lack of planning and mismanagement, Pakistan today faces a serious energy shortfall. As a nation we are out of fuel.

In 2004, as Chairman Pakistan Science Foundation, with my team I organized a Coal Conference in which all the players were invited. It was determined that large-scale commercial mining was needed, with Thar being the largest deposit as the focus of this effort. At 175 billion tons it is considered a massive resource that can cater for the energy needs of the country for over two centuries if appropriate state-of-the-art technologies are applied.

In any mining project the biggest challenge is to obtain bulk samples and establish mineability. Despite its discovery in the early 1990s by a joint exploration team of the Geological Survey of Pakistan and United States Geological Survey no samples were available for pilot level testing, and only small cores were obtained. All attempts at reaching the coal deposits were unsuccessful, mainly due to the presence of aquifers above and below the lignite seams. As a first attempt a shaft of eight feet in diameter was sunk in the ground. Pumping out of groundwater could not be accomplished, and as such the plan was abandoned. The contractor requested additional funds for installing powerful high-capacity pumps, which was turned down, thus killing the project.

As Sui Gas was the gift of the founding fathers in the 1950s, the black gold at Thar is a gift of the first born free generation of Pakistan to our future generations

In 2009, I approached the Planning Commission headed by Sardar Assef Ahmed Ali with a proposal to establish a test mine at Thar to obtain bulk samples and to establish mineability. During the meeting a retired nuclear scientist, who was then a member of the Commission, proposed to explore the possibility of Underground Coal Gasification (UCG). Both projects were approved but only one got implemented. Using his influence, the UCG Project was launched with great fanfare and false promises, though the technology was unproven. It resulted in waste of time, effort and resources. Currently the National Accountability Bureau is investigating this debacle.

With the project at dead end, I decided to approach the international platform for a possible joint venture. My paper ‘Thar Coal Mining Challenges’ was presented at the International Pittsburgh Coal Conference held at Istanbul, Turkey, in 2010. It proved to be a breakthrough when I was approached by a German expert who was looking at gasification of Thar coal for a large local fertilizer company. It was an eye-opener. Only a coordinated effort could deliver results which were missing in this case. While the UCG project came online all the other efforts remained on the periphery. The entry of ENGRO was a big boost. While they were on track for mining, they insisted on burning the black gold for producing electricity . They then teamed up with the Sindh Government to establish SECMC.

Burning coal in the 21st century is a sin. SECMC was warned that funding for a coal-fired plant would be a major challenge. The plan was to break ground in 2012 for mining followed by two 330 MW plants based on Thar Coal. Western financial institutions refused to fund. CPEC was approached for help, the Chinese insisted that a local bank should also be a part of the consortium. Nauman Dar, the then President of HBL, came to the rescue. Digging started in 2016 and was completed in 2018. The first 330 MW plant will come on line this month followed by the second in June.

Dar retired in January 2018, Shamsuddin Sheikh, the CEO of SECMC has also gone home. I am still there trying to use this black gold as a 21st century clean fuel through the established aboveground gasification process. The title of my latest paper to be presented in 2019 in Pittsburgh is; “Building a Coal Based Energy System In Pakistan”. Unless large oil and gas reservoirs are discovered, coal is the energy future of the country but with the use of appropriate environment-friendly technologies.

The purpose of writing this article was to record the journey and the obstacles faced on the way due to lack of coordination and vested self interests. As Sui Gas was the gift of the founding fathers in the 1950s, the black gold at Thar is a gift of the first born free generation of Pakistan to our future generations. It is a story of professionalism, grit and selfless struggle by three individuals. Shamsuddin Sheikh, the former CEO of SECMC, Nauman Dar, the then head of HBL, and myself, ex-Chairman Pakistan Science Foundation. All engineers by profession, now retired but still striving for a better energy future for the motherland. The massive black gold deposit at Thar, which is spread over an area of 9000 square kilometers can cater to our energy needs for centuries to come thus providing the much needed energy autarky and security.