Bangladesh has big and controversial coal plans

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Coal plants and coal transport would have an impact on the Sundarbans World Heritage mangrove forests. Photo: Sayamindu Dasgupta

Christine Shearer and Ted Nace

According to the Bangladesh Ministry of Power, only around 60% of people in Bangladesh have access to electricity. Most of the country’s electricity is generated by expensive, imported natural gas or oil.

In May 2011, the government said it had plans generate more than 10,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity (approximately 20 new plants) from coal-based power plants by 2021 and 20,000 MW by 2030. Nearly half the electricity would be generated using imported coal.

According to CoalSwarm’s Global Coal Plant Tracker, Bangladesh currently has 14,000 MW of proposed coal plants.

Many are sponsored by foreign power companies, including China Huadian Hong Kong (Maheshkhali power station), Korea Electric Power Corporation (also Maheshkkhali power station), India Power Development Board and NTPC (Rampal power station), Malaysia’s Tenaga Nasional Berhad (BPDB/TNB Joint Venture Plant), China National Machinery Import & Export Group Corporation (Kalapara power station), and SEPCOIII and HTG (Chittagong power station).

In addition, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has offered to bankroll the proposed Matarbari power station and Matarbari Port with nearly US$3.8 billion in loans.

The projects come at a steep price, as local residents report authorities routinely being more receptive to the needs of the wealthy project sponsors at the expense of the communities affected by the projects, leading to irregularities around environmental review and compensation for lost land.

Projects are typically located either in densely-populated areas, leading to widespread displacement, or more remote but environmentally sensitive areas, threatening the country’s natural resources. This has led to a large grassroots movement against coal projects in the country.

One of the first projects that set off widespread opposition was the Phulbari Coal Project, an open pit coal mine and plant proposed by Asia Energy Corporation that would displace up to 220,000 people.

After fierce resistance by the local population halted plans for the project in 2007, a 2010 WikiLeaks cable revealed US diplomats were secretly pushing the Bangladeshi government to re-open plans for the mine since “Asia Energy, the company behind the Phulbari project, has sixty percent U.S. investment.”

Another project in Bangladesh is the Rampal power station, located near the World Heritage-listed Sundarbans mangrove area. The Rampal project is one of the most controversial in the world and has been the focus of persistent opposition for several years. In September 2013, thousands of Bangladeshis joined a five-day, 400 kilometer march against the project.

In June 2015 three French banks announced that they would not support the project, following opposition from the council on ethics in Norway, which urged the country’s pension fund to steer clear of the project. In March 2016 an estimated 1,000 Bangladeshis began a four-day, 250-kilometer march from the capital to the Sundarbans in opposition to the plant.

China’s SEPCOIII and HTG are financing US$1.75 billion of the Chittagong plant’s estimated US$2.4 billion cost. The project had been agreed to in December 2013 by S. Alam Group of Bangladesh and SEPCOIII. In 2016 S. Alam started to acquire 600 acres of land from local farmers for the plant.

According to Bangladesh’s The Daily Star: “Surprisingly, all these steps were taken without any Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and public consultation. There was no environmental clearance.”

Christine Shearer is the Senior Researcher of CoalSwarm. Ted Nace is Director of CoalSwarm, which recently published Boom and Bust 2016: Tracking The Global Coal Plant Pipeline. Christine’s Twitter feed is here and Ted Nace’s here.