Confusion about the country's gas reserves

At a seminar on Bangladesh's energy security, organised at the Bidyut Bhaban on 14 August, the state minister for energy spoke about the country's gas resources.

He said that some of the country's geologists asserted that there were more gas reserves in the country, while some said there was no gas reserves. This created dilemma and confusion. He also said that many wells had been drilled, but no gas found. (The Daily Star, online report, 14 August 2022). Both of his statements caught the people's attention.

As common citizens of the country, we give due importance to the statements or comments made by senior persons in the government and try to understand what they say. The state minister for energy is well-spoken, intelligent and an efficient administrator. But these particular words of his have surprised geologists at home and abroad.

When he said at the seminar that that some say there is gas and some say there isn't, he may have just been making a perfunctory statement. However, when speaking about the prospects on undiscovered gas, wouldn't it have been more relevant to give cognizance to the scientific reports of the several international companies engaged by the Bangladesh government, rather than cursorily quoting one or two geologists? All the reports very clearly state that there is still undiscovered gas in Bangladesh and this can be extracted and put to use.

In the year 2000, the US Geological Survey (USGS) and Petrobangla, jointly carried out an evaluation of undiscovered gas resources in Bangladesh. The evaluation indicated that there was an average 50 per cent possibility of finding 32 Tcf undiscovered gas resources in the country. Of this, 23 Tcf is inland and 9 Tcf is offshore shallow gas reserves (where the depth of water is up till 200 metres). This survey did not include deep-sea gas reserves as at the time there was a lack of data and details about Bangladesh's deep sea zone.

Bangladesh uses around 1 Tcf of gas annually. USGS is a non-profit scientific organisation that studies unexplored gas reserves in its own country and other places of the world. USGS used an internationally recognised method in carrying out this evaluation. All geological and geophysical information and data collected in the past by local and foreign organisations for gas exploration and provided by Petrobangla were used to complete this survey.

Another survey on this country's unexplored gas reserves was carried out jointly in 2001 by the Norway government's Norwegian Petroleum Directorate and a subsidiary of Bangladesh's energy ministry. Data (geological, geophysical and other relevant input) was sourced from Petrobangla and from previously collected data of foreign companies. The report drawn up based this survey showed that the country has a mean 50 cent possibility of finding 42 TcF of undiscovered gas. The survey intensively studied the geological elements of Bangladesh and identified a six petroleum system in the entire area and evaluated these separately. Neither did this survey include the deep sea zone in its assessment due to the lack of data.

BAPEX is aware that it is capable of drilling the well itself. Against its own wishes it had to hand over the well it had discovered to a foreign company Gazprom for drilling

Another international oil and gas consultant firm, Gustavson Associates, in 2011 carried out another assessment and that indicated a mean 50 per cent probability of finding a volume of 54 Tcf of undiscovered gas resources. This assessment indicated a 90 per cent probability of discovering 34 TCF of gas resources. The gas sector master plan report prepared by the government in 2018 recognised the Gustavson Associates report (2011) as the most reliable and commented that if gas is explored in all areas of Bangladesh based on this assessment, then Bangladesh's gas production and supply can be doubled (Bangladesh Gas Sector Master Plan 2018).

The state minister did not quote any source of reference for this other remark that, ' many wells had been drilled, but no gas found.' But from all information concerning gas exploration in Bangladesh, it is evident that there are very few exploratory wells in the country.

Compared to other gas basins in the world, Bangladesh is known locally and international to be the least explored area. To give an example, there is Tripura, a small state of 10 sq km in neighbouring India, yet till date it has 160 exploratory wells. Bangladesh has an area of 147,000 sq km and till date it has had 99 exploratory wells. Over the 22 years it has had 26 exploratory wells (Source: BAPEX, Petrobangla 2022), meaning 1.2 wells a year on average.

This is a very low rate of exploration by any standard of oil and gas exploration operations. Just in this meagre amount of exploration well, a significantly large volume of gas has been discovered, certainly justifying the need for more exploratory wells in the area.

The success rate of gas exploration in Bangladesh is 1:3, that is, for every three wells drilled, gas is discovered in one, while the global average success rate is 1:5. A country's gas and oil exploration rate is assessed by how many exploratory wells is has annually. This does not include developed wells or assessment wells drilled for already discovered gas or oil fields.

BAPEX gave rise to another area of confusion. In 1998 the drilling of a well began in the Shahbazpur gas field discovered by BAPEX in Bhola. This was named the Tobgi-1 well. This is located within the geological structure of the Shahbazpur gas field and is, accordingly, a development well.

Terming this as an exploratory well is a violation of the basic definition of gas exploration operations. BAPEX probably did this at the orders from the higher administration level. A drilled well in an identified gas field can in no way be called an exploratory well.

Another matter is, BAPEX is aware that it is capable of drilling the well itself. Against its own wishes it had to hand over the well it had discovered to a foreign company Gazprom for drilling. This too, probably, was done at the directives from a higher level in the administration If not, why was a well that could be drilled for Tk 800 million, be handed over to Gazprom to be drilled for Tk 1.9 billion? There probably is no one in the BAPEX administration who will protest against this matter which goes against national interests or raise a debate in this connection.

Not allowing a competent national company to develop in its own capacity, can only be part of a weak or malevolent plan. And this is the biggest impediment to BAPEX advancing forward.

* Dr Badrul Imam is an honorary professor, Department of Geology, Dhaka University