Pakistan is in the midst of a grave shortage of natural gas that has hit ordinary citizens particularly hard this winter. The dwindling natural gas supply has been a cause of concern given a shortage which spikes up during periods of high demand. The reserves are fast depleting, and are likely to deplete completely over the next 16 years even though Pakistan has invested heavily in its natural gas infrastructure. The natural gas transmission pipeline network in Pakistan is by far the best in the region. The distribution web alone spreads through 128,758 kilometres across the country.
To meet the growing demand, unfortunately, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources had a one-track focus on Qatari LNG, regardless of the consequences. Yet with projected high prices linked to Brent Crude, LNG was not viable at a price greater than $8 per million metric British Thermal Unit (mmbtu). With the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline at a slump under sanctions, and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline risky because of an unstable Afghanistan, imported natural gas hit dead ends in 2014. However, in the single-minded pursuit of LNG, Pakistan’s great potential of biogas has long been ignored by the government. Pakistan is the fourth largest dairy producing country in the world, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, and the thirteenth largest in livestock production.
It would greatly benefit Pakistan if our government and the ministry look towards other more feasible and efficient avenues to meet the country’s energy shortfall. One such feasible option that Pakistan can exploit is that of biogas, which refers to the gas produced after organic material goes through the process of fermentation in the absence of air with the help of bacteria, a process known as anaerobic fermentation.
Studies suggest that Pakistan has the potential of sustaining 5.7 million biogas plants, which may be able to fulfil a daily demand of up to one billion cubic feet. Though the heating value of biogas is only up to 650btu per cubic feet, this heating value is enough to generate electricity for tube wells and domestic lighting. Countries such as Sweden operate their bus transport system on biogas. This begs the question as to why Pakistan cannot tap into its biogas potential and make an effort to gradually shift its gas consumption to biogas.
Successive governments have completely neglected the biogas potential in rural areas and excessively provided gas connections there. In parliament, the minister of petroleum himself has disclosed that, so far, 5,248 villages in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), 181,440 villages in Punjab, 151,715 of Sindh and only 111 villages of Balochistan had been connected to the national gas grid, regardless of the fact that these villages could have been facilitated with biogas plants. Successive governments have typically used the provision of widespread gas connections to win votes in elections. The worst example of this abuse is when a former prime minister provided unnecessary gas connections to all the villages of his district just to win the 2013 elections.
Given the immense potential for biogas, it is important to look at the costs of plants. Depending on the size of the plant, some ready-to-install for as little as Rs40,000 and most plants cost no more than Rs80,000 and can generate 10-20 cubic metres of biogas per day, enough biogas could be produced for cooking and electricity generation which can reduce burden on the national gas and electricity grid. Creating a reliable supply of natural gas in Pakistan requires out of the box thinking. What one requires here is a commitment to eliminate the natural gas shortfall, and meet the projected demands of the future. This may be a tough assignment for the petroleum minister, but with strong political will, he would be able to uplift the people of Pakistan. The minister may have to step down from the luxury of Qatari hotels to simpler settings in remote areas, such as Fata, with high biogas potential, but this sacrifice will go a long way in creating popular support for this government for actual and substantial commitment to addressing peoples’ concern. Visions may become reality.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 12th, 2015.
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