Selling our souls to the Chinese; dollars and a crime
The government of Pakistan flaunted the news of the Chinese investment; ‘multiple agreements of an estimated 42 billion dollars’ does sound impressive. ‘Money, it’s a gas’ read the lyrics of a Pink Floyd song. However, will these agreements ever come under public scrutiny or will our government continue to operate in secrecy?
The economists have speculated on the favourable terms offered to secure these investments. The opposition has questioned the weight of potential debt taken on by the government. However, there has been little discussion on the potential environmental impacts of the agreed projects.
China has a checkered history with the Environment. During the week long Asia-Pacific Economic Forum in Beijing, China forced 800 factories to close, instituted traffic restrictions for ten days and gave six-day vacations to tens of thousands of government employees and shut schools to make the air slightly ‘cleaner’. Despite all these measures, the city’s air quality barely dropped below the level considered safe to breathe.
Our politicians referred to China as ‘our iron friends’ but there are no friends in global politics, only allies. China’s investment does not arise from the benevolence of their hearts. They are looking to seize an investment opportunity.
A major portion of the investment is devoted to the building of coal fired electricity plants. China is the world’s largest net importer of coal. Coal fired plans are a large contributor to the air pollution in the country. China relies heavily on coal and the import of foreign oil to fuel its ever growing economy.
Pakistan is potentially a low cost energy producing sector located in close proximity. China is diversifying its energy base in the region. The talk of pipelines and the energy economic corridor are crucial to such plans. China plans to build a billion dollar oil refinery in Balochistan, which will export oil to China. Pakistan is China’s energy insurance policy.
However, the most problematic part of the agreements has gone almost completely unnoticed. Last month, at the Pakistan Oil and Gas Promotion Conference in Beijing Ambassador Masood Khalid spoke about the economic prospects of exploiting Pakistan’s massive hydrocarbon potential, one of which is the exploration and production of Shale Gas. The conference was organized by the China Overseas Investment Union and the Pakistan Embassy in Beijing.
Pakistan has said to have around 105 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, whereas its demand is a mere 1.6 trillion cubic feet per year. The problem is not with the abundance of the natural resource but its production. Shale Gas must be explored and produced through a process called ‘Hydraulic fracturing’; a rock is fractured by a pressurized liquid. Chemicals are used to crack open deep rocks to release the natural gas.
The process is also used in the production of ‘Tight Gas’. The joint venture in the Kirthar belt by Poland’s Polskie Gornictwo Naftwoze-i-Gazownictwo (PGNiG) and Pakistan Petroleum Limited use the controversial this controversial process to produce Tight Gas.
Hydraulic Fracturing, or fracking, has increased the United States’ gas production by many folds but it has led to massive environmental concerns. The first is the unknown amounts of methane released into the environment during the process. Methane has a very large greenhouse effect, which causes global warming. Global warming can lead to massive climate changes and weather anomalies. Despite the country being rampaged by floods and droughts annually, global warming is not a topic of public discourse in Pakistan.
Fracking also requires millions of gallons of water to complete each fracturing job. In a country suffering a dearth of water resources, redirecting limited water resources towards the energy sector rather than providing clean drinking water to the masses is not mere negligence, it is borderline criminal. In 2007, the Indian Supreme Court read the right of access to clean water as being part of the fundamental right to life. Based on such an understanding, multiple Pakistani governments have failed to uphold the fundamental rights enshrined in our constitution.
However, the most harmful part of the process is the use of up to 600 chemicals in the process, including lead, uranium, mercury, radium, methanol, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde. These chemicals are pumped deep into the ground leading to a contamination of the groundwater. Water contamination near fracking sites has been linked to numerous illnesses and deaths. In certain cases, it has also made the water flammable due to the amount of methane in the water.
Pakistan is a country heavily relying on agriculture to sustain its population and economy; there has been no research on the potential effects massive projects for the exploration of natural gas in Pakistan. A contamination of the groundwater with chemicals will make the water unfit for human consumption, and by extension unfit to use in the agricultural process or the production of food.
Fracking has been out rightly banned in France. A study in Garfeild Country in the United States in 2012 found 45 harmful chemicals with the potential to harm human health in the air near fracking sites. Another study studies babies born to women near fracking sites in rural Colarado, United States between 1996 and 2009 and found women living close to gas wells are more likely to have babies born with defects. Research also finds high level of arsenic in the groundwater near fracking sites.
Such researches and studies are not conclusive but offering an open invitation to foreign companies to operate in Pakistan without any research on the environmental impacts can prove to be highly harmful in the long run.
There has been a crackdown on fracking sites in the United States that were dumping the waste water back into the water. Caifornia has halted the injection of fracking waste, leading to the regulation of new laws to control the process. Our country has turned a blind eye to water pollution in the country; ignoring any long term consequences for immediate political gains.
The Chinese Companies operating in the Aisha Field in Badin on the exploration of gas have received a clean chit from the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency. Such measures of ‘friendship’ may be attracting the investors, with the United Energy Group raising the Capex Investment for its Pakistan asset to US $200 million on Hong Kong Stock Exchange for exploitation and exploration projects in Pakistan.
BP Amco(UK), BHP (Australia), China Oil (China), OMV (Austria), Petronas (Malasia) and MOL(Hungary) are just some of the oil and gas operators already functioning in Pakistan. The American Energy Group Ltd has also asked investors to focus their exploration efforts in the country. The organization celebrates the Petroleum Policy of 2009 of Pakistan for removing all the limitations of the 2007 Petroleum policy. Countless new licenses were issued to companies under the new policy.
Fracking also increases the risk of Earthquakes, even though the investment flyers describe Pakistan as a land that is geologically sound. The scars of the 2005 Earthquake in Pakistan run deep; Pakistan has frequent tremors and Earthquakes. Drilling deep into the land to fracture rocks and release deep natural gas may cause a disruption in the tectonic plates.
With all these concerns, it is not surprising the government has kept the details of the agreements a secret. Foreign companies are already engaging in the controversial practice of fracking in Pakistan. The latest investment only looks to increase its operations and build a greater infrastructure to exploit the natural resources of Pakistan in funding China’s economic growth. There are no all-weather friends, Pakistani leaders should have learnt that back in high school.