Pakistan to Produce Natural Gas by Burning Underground Coal

Pakistani miners set up support as they dig coal at Lakhra coal fields. (Photo: Nadeem Khawer, epa/Corbis)

Consider the miserable plight of the average Pakistani electricity consumer. With about 50 percent less electricity generation capability than the actual demand, Pakistan's national grid is facing more than a 5,000 megawatt shortfall in power generation, leading to blackouts in both urban and rural areas of the country. Due to unscheduled shortages by the National Power Control Center, urban areas are facing unscheduled minimum 8-hour power blackouts each day, while in rural areas the blackouts can last as long as 14 hours.

The situation is equally miserable in the country's compressed natural gas sector, which is now facing three or four days per week with suspension of gas deliveries to the country's textile sector, while the gas supply to non-textile industry has been suspended indefinitely.

Scrambling to exploit virtually any indigenous sources of energy, officials in the capital Islamabad are now pinning their hopes on the Thar Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) pilot project, situated in the Tharparkar desert in Sindh eastern Pakistan. 

Underground coal gasification converts coal to gas while still in the coal seam, where injection wells are drilled and used to supply the oxidants to ignite and fuel the underground combustion process, with separate production wells used to bring the product gas to surface. The high-pressure combustion is conducted at temperatures of 1,290 to 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit, but can reach up to 2,730 degrees. The process produces carbon monoxide and dioxide, hydrogen, and methane.

Boosters of the Thar UCG project note that Block Number 5 of Thar Coal Project contains 1.4 billion tons of low-grade lignite coal reserves. Overall the coal reserves at Thar are estimated at 175 billion tons of lignite coal.

Advantages claimed for the Thar UCG project include the fact that, as the coal is burnt 600 feet below ground, threat of environmental pollution is minimized. In addition, as the coal is processed in situ rather than being dug out and brought to the earth's surface to be burnt to generate electricity, UCG will minimize electricity-generating costs, projected to be $0.045 to $0.057 per kilowatt hour, as opposed to current costs at $0.113 to $0.136 per kilowatt hour.
For this energy miracle to happen, the federal government needs to provide an additional $100 million in funding to generate electricity from the project as soon as possible, which will then reportedly allow the Thar UCG project to supply 100 megawatts of electricity annually to the national power grid by December 2013. Dr. Muhammad Saleem, director of the Thar UCG project, said only $9.1 million has been spent on the Thar's UCG development so far.
Science and Technology Planning Commission member Samar Mubarakmand said that Pakistan's coal reserves are sufficient to provide electricity to the nation for more than 30 years.
But the Thar UCG project has its critics. A number of chemical engineers and petrochemical experts, speaking on condition of anonymity, collectively voiced their concerns, particularly about the non-technical specialist management of the project, noting, "The huge energy and petrochemical potential of Thar is wholly dependent on the success of its pilot project, and if the non-technical management of this plan does not remove the project's flaws, the country would ultimately be deprived of these huge underground assets forever. You can imagine what can happen if any pilot project fails solely due to a lack of knowledge and expertise.

"Usually, every oil and gas company first does rigorous tests on oil and gas wells to determine the composition of the gas and oil and then build the multi-million-dollar facility. This is the very first step, but in the UCG project the team does not know anything about the composition of the gas, and yet they want to build a facility. They are only spending lot of money."

Is this a visionary project for Pakistan's energy future or an enterprise doomed to failure by inept crony management? Pakistani electricity customers will remain figuratively and literally in the dark until these questions are definitively answered.