From Sui natural gas to synthetic natural gas

In 1952 Pakistan discovered the world’s largest gas deposit of 12 TCF (Trillion Cubic Feet) at Sui in Dera Bugti Area of Balochistan. Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL), a joint venture company of Government of Pakistan, and a multi-national were responsible for pumping out the gas. By 1955 the gift of nature reached Karachi through a cathodically protected underground pipeline. There was no looking back. Today the country has state of the art gas transmission and distribution network spread over 20,000 kilometres of pipeline built by indigenous know how. The state owned companies run the system. SSGC (Sui Southern Gas Company) covers the Southern areas (Sindh, Balochistan) while SNGPL (Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited) is responsible for the Northern part (Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).

In the carbon or fossil fuel cycle, coal is at the lower end while gas is at the upper rung – with oil in between. When organic matter decays it first converts into coal whose grades improve (Lignite, Semi-Bituminous, Bituminous, Anthracite) with age. While the world was burning coal in the 20th century, Pakistan was using gas for its energy needs. What should have been adequate for a century was blown up in half that time. Now that the world is moving away from coal, the country is moving blindly in that direction. From 12 TCF the Sui reserves are down to 2 TCF. Several other smaller sources are now being relied upon to meet the needs.

500 mmcfd of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) is being imported from Qatar which may go up to 1200 mmcfd. Imported LNG is about 40% more expensive than the local gas whose production varies from 1600 to 2000 mmcfd. Once the oil prices go up so will the cost of this imported gas making it unaffordable for the common man.

Burning coal in the 21st century has serious environmental consequences that is why no new plants based on combustion are being erected. India was the only defiant country and even they have now decided to switch to solar energy. While Beijing is shutting down all the coal fired plants, Lahore is being exposed to this degradation. The Sahiwal plant poses logistics, environmental and ground water challenges which will become insurmountable very soon.

Both SNGPL and SSGC may need a name change as the contribution of Sui Gas has been reduced to under 10%. Now they have become multi source gas distribution companies that include LNG from Qatar. It was because of the discovery at Sui in 1952 that Pakistan remained an energy surplus nation till 2005. All other sources of fuel were largely ignored including the 174 billion ton coal deposit at Thar. Finally digging has started at site to extract the black gold. Government of Sind and ENGRO have formed a joint venture SECMC (Sind ENGRO Coal Mining Company) which will mine coal in block-II followed by power generation by burning it. The project was delayed due to lack of funding. Financial closure was possible under CPEC. With completion of this project Thar will appear on the world Coal Map as one of the largest deposits. From Gas to Coal, from cleanest to the dirtiest fossil fuel this transition has to be carefully planned.

For a coal rich country with an elaborate gas network the best option is to convert this black gold into clean fuel called Synthetic Natural Gas (SNG). What nature would have done in centuries can now be achieved in a day under controlled environment. Above ground gasification is an established process and is being carried out successfully. The underground gasification process (UCG) that was tried at Thar is still under development and has not proven commercially viable as yet.

As human needs change technology advances. The era of fossil fuels is coming to an end. Electric vehicles and Hydrogen cells are being introduced. Environmental considerations have become important. Burning the dirtiest fossil fuel available in the 21st century is an unpardonable crime. While we cannot wait for nature to convert our coal reserves to gas but we can do it ourselves through the application of appropriate technology.

LNG is a short term fix and does not provide energy security as it is imported. SNG is the right approach for coal rich countries like Pakistan. There is a lot of misinformation about Thar coal which has to be corrected. It is low sulphur (1%) Lignite coal high on moisture (40%) ideally suited for above ground gasification. Being a huge, shallow (150M) watery deposit it is not suitable for UCG, as such this drama must come to an end.

Pittsburgh is the world coal capital where the experts meet every year for an international conference. I will be presenting a paper titled: “Replacing LNG with SNG in the Energy Mix of Pakistan”. As a nation we cannot swim against the tide. While the world is moving away from coal we are importing to burn it. Coal rich countries do not need to import LNG as established technologies exist to convert the black gold into gas. It is time to correct our direction. Energy security is vital, as a nation we are running out of fuel. Burning coal is not an option. We have to move from Sui to Synthetic Natural Gas even a name change of the companies will not be required (SSGC and SNGPL).

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