‘Energy decisions in Bangladesh depend on the clout of the lobbyists’

Anu Muhammad

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina had spoken about a schedule regarding load-shedding in different areas due to the ongoing gas and electricity crisis. She appealed to all for their cooperation regarding load-shedding. That means there is no escape from this load-shedding of electricity for the time being. There has been talk of controlling the use of air-conditioners, a prohibition on decorative illumination around the country, and other measures. This load-shedding may continue on up till September. In an interview with Prothom Alo’s senior correspondent Mohiuddin, member secretary of the national committee for the protection of oil, gas, mineral resources, power and ports, economist Anu Muhammad, speaks about the gas and power crisis and other issues pertaining to the energy sector.

Q :

Bangladesh’s power and energy sector is in a crisis. Is this the result of the Russia-Ukraine crisis or just wrong decisions regarding the sector? You have been issuing warnings about this for some time now.

The Russia-Ukraine war really has no bearing on the energy crisis. It is just being used as an excuse. Many countries are doing this, Bangladesh a bit more than the others. This power and energy crisis would have emerged anyway, even without the Russia-Ukraine war. The war has simply served to accelerate it. If the war hadn’t broken out, maybe the crisis would be occurred a little later, but the crisis is going to take on even more alarming proportions in the coming days.

Q :

What has led to this crisis, in your opinion?

The government’s power sector master plan is the root cause of this crisis. It’s the same for all policies and programmes of the government in other sectors too. The master plan has been drawn up by foreigners and is completely dependent on loans and imports. There are foreign loans and foreign companies on the one hand, and coal and nuclear power on the other. And about gas, it is being said that we have to import liquefied natural gas or LNG. Both coal and nuclear power are alarming for Bangladesh. Foreign companies and some local partners are in involved in this. That means the master plan has given priority to certain local and foreign corporate groups. This has never offered any actual solution to the country’s power crisis. The generation capacity may have increased, but the other related issues have not been given due importance. The primary fuel for power generation has not been given a thought. The transmission and distribution lines have not been developed. That is why there has more or less always been load shedding.

Q :

You all had come up with the proposal for an alternative master plan in 2017. And you have also for long been talking about using national capacity…

Bangladesh headed towards danger with coal and nuclear power. The oil, gas committee came up with an alternative master plan in 2017. Also, for the last 20 years we have been saying that importance must be given to national capacity and sovereign energy. Our master plan also placed emphasis on using national capacity. It would be possible to ensure affordable and uninterrupted power production by increasing gas exploration, extraction and use in the country and also by using national capacity to produce power from renewable energy. Then we would not be dependent on foreign quarters or loans.

Q :

Has the government taken your proposals into consideration?

The government did not follow our suggestions. The government never paid attention to gas exploration, offshore or inland. The very same persons who spoke about exporting gas, are now saying there is no gas and have promoted gas import. They promoted coal and nuclear power plants. The government is proceeding accordingly. This has benefitted for certain groups within the country as well as China, India and Russia. It also ensures both financial burden and environmental devastation for Bangladesh. The government was cautioned about this, but to no avail. The government has walked into this danger with its eyes open.

Q :

The government’s new master plan is giving importance to renewable energy. How do you see that?

Even the 2016 master plan talked about renewable energy. But nothing really was done about it. It has been included this time too. There is pressure because of signing the Paris Agreement and other international agreements and that is why the government is talking about renewable energy. But in reality, the government has no focus on making this effective. Their main focus is on coal and nuclear power. The government hasn’t moved away from this.

Basically in Bangladesh, such decisions depend on the clout of the lobbyists. The coal, nuclear and LNG lobbyists are presently controlling the government energy policy. National interests or sustainable development concepts cannot influence the government. They are influenced by lobbyists and therein lies the problem.

Q :

Given the present crisis, what can be done? What is the way ahead?

There are two possibilities to any crisis. One is to take up a long-term solution, protecting public interests. The present crisis, for example, indicates clearly that the production of national resources like gas must be increased and focus must be turned to renewable energy. And the second is that foreign loans that increase financial burdens, must not be taken up. This is quite clear everywhere, whether in Sri Lanka or the global crisis.

Q :

There has also been talk about extracting local coal. What is your opinion about this?

Coal-fired electricity is now even the most expensive in financial terms. It is the most expensive in terms of using technology to avoid environmental risks and also in terms of social costs. During times of crisis, ways of taking the safe route emerge instead of going down the risky route. Bangladesh may turn towards gas exploration and the use of renewable energy.

Another possibility arises in times of crisis. Opportunists want to take advantage of the situation. Even after falling into the crisis, no lesson is being learnt from wrong decisions like nuclear power, nothing is being done to rectify the mistakes. Quite to the contrary, this crisis is being used to hatch conspiracies to push the country towards even greater danger. The groups who were active about the Fulbari coal project and Asia Energy, are taking advantage of the crisis and rearing their heads again.

Q :

What can the government do to resolve the crisis?

The government can move away from import-based, loan-based activities and give importance to national energy security and energy sovereignty, moving towards extraction of local gas and renewable energy. Not only should coal extraction be shunned, but we must move away from coal-fired energy plants too. We must move away from LNG too. This will lessen the burden of financial pressure. We won’t have to look towards foreign loans. This will make uninterrupted and safe power supply possible and the costs will also gradually decrease.

* This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir