Time to tap coal bed methane

Sutirtha Bhattacharya/DN Prasad | Updated on March 01, 2021

Coal bed methane exploration has to be concurrent with the search for coal   -  Reuters

Systematic exploration, tech validation and global accreditation are key to harnessing this clean energy source

Policy-makers in India are focussing on migration from a predominantly fossil driven energy economy to the cleaner renewable sources. This is a welcome move, especially with the country being a signatory to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Despite the increasing clamour against coal, realistically, India’s energy needs would still be coal dependent to a large extent. ‘Clean Coal Technology’ assumes critical importance in this context.

Coal Bed Methane, or CBM, can chip in as a clean energy source. It is an unconventional natural gas that occurs in coal beds in adsorbed form during coalification process and is rich in methane content.

CBM is known by different nomenclatures depending on its mechanism of extraction. In any form, methane has energy potential and the captured gas can be used for power generation, running internal combustion engines and as domestic fuel on commercial lines. India can harness CBM as it transitions to clean energy, as it will also provide additional scope for increased employment and state revenues.

The flip-side is that methane is 25 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and poses safety challenge in underground coal mines. It needs to be ventilated for securing the workplace and carrying out mining operations. Hence, CBM is drained and let out into atmosphere. Being a major greenhouse gas, its release into the atmosphere is a matter of great concern and needs to be controlled to mitigate global warming.

CBM’s energy potential was realised back in 1997 and the government had formulated a CBM policy that laid down the fiscal regime, contractual terms for the exploration and exploitation of CBM. The Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas became the administrative Ministry and the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons (DGH) was made the nodal agency for development of CBM in the country.

Both Petroleum and Coal Ministries were jointly made responsible for developing the resource. Delineation of CBM blocks was to be done only in consultation with the Coal Ministry. The Central Mine Planning and Design Institute Ltd (CMPDIL), a subsidiary of Coal India Ltd (CIL), was made the nodal agency for delineating CBM blocks. The CBM story began with much promise and during 2000-2008 a total of 33 CBM blocks were awarded to different national and private oil and gas companies for exploitation, covering 16,613 sq km out of a total coal-bearing area of 26,000 sq km outside CIL command areas.

Inertia sets in

However inertia set in. The projects which began with much promise started fizzling out due to policy apathy and lack of impetus. Despite pumping in investments, only 1.87 mmscmd (million metric standard cubic meter per day) of CBM production could be achieved till March 2019 from four operational blocks — two in Raniganj and one each in Sohagpur and Jharia. Meanwhile, 20 CBM blocks are apparently proposed to be relinquished. The remaining blocks are still in different stages of development.

Even a demonstration project taken up in 1999 for exploitation and utilisation of CBM/CMM (Coal Mine Methane) — which was assisted by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and implemented by CMPDIL at Moonidih UG mine, Jharkhand — could achieve only some of the envisaged objectives and that too after a five-year delay.

Development of CBM commenced in Australia almost during the same period as that of India. While Australia’s CBM development reached an impressive 109 mmscmd, India’s was less than 2 per cent of the level achieved by Australia. Though the geo-mining conditions are different in the two countries that may atill not fully explain the dismal performance, particularly when the source is the same Gondwana tract.

The CBM resources, estimated in 1997 at 91.80 trillion cubic feet (TCF), still remain at that level and have not been reviewed. While computing the CBM resource estimates, the United Nations Framework Classification (UNFC) benchmark wasn’t there.

The estimated coal resources of the country increased from 246 billion tonnes to 326 billion tonnes during 2004 to 2019. CBM gas exploration has to be concurrent with coal exploration. If CBM is to be harnessed with any tangible output, a sound exploration strategy is imperative concurrently with systematic proving of reserves. Their validation has to be urgently established in sync with international standards and practices. The CBM policy also specifies simultaneous extraction of coal and gas in sequential manner through co-development agreements.

A a silver lining to the CBM policy has been two major reforms between 2015 and 2018. One, public sector coal companies were permitted to explore and extract CBM from the leasehold areas held by them without seeking separate lease for gas extraction. And, two, freedom to fix the price and sale of gas was extended by the government to all operators of CBM.

Systematic exploration of the resource, technology validation and international accreditation constitute the crux of the development of CBM resource of the country. These areas need not be concentrated in public sector alone.

Enabling mechanism

To bring in contemporary exploration and exploitation technology, necessary enabling mechanism — in terms of policy initiative, administrative transparency, coupled with requisite data/information depository — need to be created. This will require international collaboration. But it may be noted that association with countries like the US by the Central Mine Planning and Design Institute (a subsidiary of CIL) has not yielded the desired results.

In this context, a cue may be taken from the ‘Economic Empowerment Policy’ of South Africa. International technology providers/operators may select an Indian partner of their choice to implement CBM/CMM projects in India. This will not only ensure introduction of contemporary technology to suit Indian conditions but also mitigate risk of investment. Technology transfer, however, should be mandatory as per a clearly-laid-out roadmap in sync with ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ objectives. In such a revised policy paradigm, allotment of the relinquished blocks will meet with more successful outcomes.

It is time to revisit the policy to invigorate methane extraction. In light of the rapidly changing scenario, the window of opportunity in the context of coal or methane is growing smaller and quick action is a crying need.

Bhattacharya is Chairperson, West Bengal Electricity Regulatory Commission, and Prasad is Adviser, Singareni Collieries Company Ltd. Views are personal.

Published on March 01, 2021

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