The unexplored coal reserves

Pakistan can overcome its energy problems

By Syed M. Aslam
Jan 11 - 17, 1999

More than a half of the electricity, generated in the United States is provided by coal which also accounts for a quarter of all energy supplies in the States. In China coal is the source of three-quarters of country’s total energy needs including cooking, heating and power generation. In neighbouring India coal supplies 57 per cent of energy and 70 per cent of electricity.

In Pakistan, a country which has abundance of coal reserves, less than 12 per cent of the coal produced in the country is used by the power sector while the rest is used by the brick-making sector for the benefit of the construction industry. Over three-forth or about 77 per cent of the energy in Pakistan is obtained from oil and gas, 18 per cent from hydel power while coal accounts for just 4 per cent of the energy needs of the country. The rest of one per cent is obtained from nuclear and liquefied petroleum gas combined.

The coal reserves in Pakistan are estimated at over 183 billion tonnes. However, the measured or drill-proven reserves are estimated at 579 million tonnes which are enough to last for 180 years at the present rate of excavation which averages 3.2 million tonnes annually.

Coal has long been used to provide power, heat and light. It is used to generate energy, warm homes besides being used as fuel for cooking and the cheapest fuel in railway engines. In many industrialized countries coal has been replaced by natural gas and other cleaner fuels as a source to generate power. But the heavy dependence on coal for energy and power in the US, the second leading consumer, proves that with proper safeguards it could still be a much less expensive fuel substitute particularly the countries in the developing world.

International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that over 40 per cent of the projected growth in global electricity demand by the year 2010 would come from East and South East Asia where coal is currently the dominant fuel for power generation. For instance, China plans to build some 500 power plants many of them coal-fired by year 2010 and Indonesia, the third largest coal exporter, predicts a ten-fold increase in coal used for power generation by 2009.

Lack of planning to fully exploit coal reserves in abundance and a meaningful way to utilize it to generate power by Pakistan which is facing acute energy shortages even in winter this year can be attributed to many factors.

The two main sources of electricity generation in Pakistan are hydel and thermal power— the first from water and the second from any of the fossil fuel; oil, natural gas or coal. The major hydel projects are Tarbela and Mangla both of which are managed and maintained by the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) one of the two public sector power producers. Less than 43 per cent of the total installed generating capacity of WAPDA comes form hydel while the rest is through thermal. Hundred per cent of installed capacity of the other power producer, the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC), is thermal. Every other independent power producer including Hubco is thermal.

The country is heavily dependent on hydel energy the production of which is dependent on the amount of rainfall and the level of water in the dams.

The massive loadsheddings which started last month all over the country and is still continuing at present during the winter season during which electricity demand is much lower than in summer is blamed on the low water levels at Mangla and Tarbela. Of Wapda’s total hydel capacity of 4,825 mw the combined installed generating capacity of the two is 4,478 mw.

The construction of large and smaller dams in the early seventies and the work in progress on another at Ghazi Barotha, a 1,450 mw project downstream of Tarbela, shows that the policy makers in Pakistan have always favoured these big projects over the thermal ones. However, as dams could not be built just about everywhere and are costly projects the bulk of power generation by public as well as private sector in Pakistan is thermal. The total installed generation capacity in Pakistan is over 14,500 units including WAPDA 9,646 mw, KESC 1,801 mw and IPP 2,892 mw— Hubco 1,292 mw Kot Addu 1,600 mw.


WAPDA has just two coal-fired thermal plants with a combined installed generating capacity of 233 mw — an 83 mw plant in Quetta and another 150 mw fluidized bed Lakhra. It has 20 per cent share in Lakhra Coal Development Company (LCDC), a joint venture company having equity share of Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation (PMDC) and Government of Sindh 20 per cent. The rest of the 30 per cent share is reserved for the private sector participation.

The LCDC has to supply 750,000 tonnes of coal per annum to WAPDA for its 3x50 mw coal-fired plant at Khanote Sindh. However, the production at Lakhra mines remained below the expected level as during July-March 1996-97 LCDC produced 258,055 tonnes of coal from its small coal mines.

The largest coal field in Pakistan, discovered in 1992 by Geological Survey of Pakistan, is located at Thar Desert. On an average 3.4 million tonnes of coal is produced annually in Pakistan all of which is used locally— over 88 per cent by the brick-making sector and the negligible rest by the power sector— WAPDA’s coal-fired plants.

Province-Wise Excavation

Sindh has a very large coal resource potential— 183 billion tonnes outlined in and around in Lakhra, Sonda-Jherruck, Indus East, Thar and Badin coal fields. Coal mining is reported from Lakhra and Meting-Jhimpir mines. Annual production is about one million tonnes or about one-third of the total national production. Sindh has measured reserves of 734 million tonnes. Coal produced in Sindh contain a high level of sulphur.

The known coal producing fields of Balochistan include Duki, Khost-Sharig, Harnai, Pir Ismail Ziarat, Mach-Abe-Gum, Sor Range-Deghari and Ghamalong-Bahlol. The overall source potential is 194 million tonnes with measured reserved of 52.5 million tonnes. Average annual production is the same as that of Sindh— one million tonnes.

Coal production in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) is restricted to one field in Hangu. The resource potential is over 44 million tonnes with measured reserves of 0.5 million tonnes. The annual production is negligible.

Punjab has a coal resource potential of 234 million tonnes with drill-proven reserves of 43 million tonnes annually. Average annual production is 0.45 million tonnes. Coal resources in Punjab are located in the Eastern and the Central Salt Range and in Makerwal area of Surghar Range.

The vast reserves of coal has failed to benefit Pakistan in any meaningful way particularly as the least inexpensive fuel for generation of electricity. No attempts were made to diversify into coal-fired power projects and though WAPDA generates energy from coal it remains too little.


While coal offers developing countries a cheap power generating fuel as compared to much more costly oil or natural gas the growing awareness about carbon and the affect it has on the environment. However, the huge contribution coal— the most carbon intensive fossil fuel— is playing in the energy and power sectors of such developed countries as the United States and developing nations like China and India go to show that with proper technology and environmental measures and safeguards it still remains the cheapest source of energy and power.

According to Review of Energy Policies of IEA (International Environmental Agency) in 1996 IEA member countries, mostly developed, had a combined reported Research and Development Budget of $ 403.3 million for coal. In fact the total R&D Budget on coal surpassed $ 361 million for Oil & Gas in the same year. With right policies and measures coal can help reduce heavy dependence on imported oil at the fraction of the cost for power generation.

But the abundance could hardly mean anything if the product can not match the chemical properties. All kinds of coal could not be used as source of energy for power generation.

The two most important types of coal are anthracite, often called the hard coal, and the bituminous or soft coal. Anthracite coal was formed under greater pressure than bituminous and as a result it has higher carbon content and a lower water content. Anthracire makes up a small portion of world’s coal production.

Bituminous coal is the most important and the most plentiful kind of coal. It is the chief fuel in power producing plants that generate electricity with steam. It also provides coke for the steel industry and is the raw material for thousands of by coke-products including gas and chemicals. It keeps homes and offices warm.

The majority of coal produced in Pakistan is of sub-bituminous quality, particularly that in the Sore Range, Balochistan. Sub-bituminous coal has a water content of almost 25 per cent of its weight. It burns readily and before the coal in general was replaced by oil and other cleaner substitutes was usually used to warm the houses and industrial factories. It is not as good as bituminous coal as it contains more moisture. Pakistan, Canada, New Zealand and the US all have large deposits of sub-bituminous coal.

Though this coal has been successfully used by WAPDA in its coal-fired thermal power plant of 7.5x2 mw at Sheikhmanda near Quetta and report shows that the coal from Sore-degjari coal fields is suitable for coal-fired thermal power plants.

The abundance of sub-bituminous coal limit, the use of coal in Pakistan as it requires special technology to be used in power generation. It also means that no coke, an industrial raw material, can be made to make the mining and usage of it even less limited and profitable.

But vast reserves still offer Pakistan many economic advantages provided it restructures its state-owned coal industries by either shutting the inefficient mines and/or making those already existing into better productive ones.

Though cleaner fuel has replaced fuel to a great extent and its use in the developed countries for heating has shrunk tremendously notwithstanding the important role its playing in electricity generation in the United States and in the developing countries like Pakistan its use is now limited to use in brick-making industry and to much smaller extent in power generation. Only 0.39 per cent of local production in Pakistan is used in households.

However, people across the world still use coal in various forms not recognizing that they are using it. Chemicals obtained from coal are used to make varnish, detergents, and thousands of other useful items. These products and raw materials are obtained from coal by the four basic processes— carbonization, hydrogenation, gas synthesis and gasification.

Carbonization consists of baking coal in an airtight oven. In this process, about two-thirds of the coal is turned into either ‘coke’ or ‘char’, depending on the quality of the baked coal. Coke is particularly useful in making iron and steel and as an industrial fuel. The remaining one-third of the coal so baked turns into tar and gas— the former is used in road surfacing in many developing countries including Pakistan and also as a raw material that can be broken down into hundreds of valuable chemicals. The coal gas, or coke oven gas, can be used both as a fuel and as a raw material for industrial chemicals.

Hydrogenation is a process of treating coal with oil and hydrogen under heat and pressure and then separating the liquid mixture into useful products. It produces hydrocarbon gases such as ethane, propane and butane, many valuable chemicals such as benzene, phenol, naphthalene and aniline. These chemicals in turn are used in the making of such everyday products as dyes, perfumes, paints and plastics. The hydrogenation can also be sued to produce fuel oil and petrol.

Gas synthesis is the method of developing chemicals from coal by oxidation. Pulverized coal is turned into a gas by being exposed to oxygen and superheated steam. The gas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, is in turn passed over various solid catalysts that change it into various products. For instance, cobalt catalysts change the gas into diesel fuel and iron catalysts change it into petrol.

Gasification is a method of obtaining fuel gas from coal. Experiments were carried out in Britain, Russia and the US by which the coal is burnt in the ground to produce gas which then is piped to the surface. The gas can be used as a source of heat to make electricity or can be broken down into liquid fuels such as petrol.

While the excavation and demand of coal in Pakistan has increased by 25 per cent from 2.751 million tonnes since 1989-90 the global consumption of it increased one per cent from 2,507 million tonnes of oil equivalent in 1996 to 2,532 in 1997. In addition, the fact that coal still accounts for 27 per cent of overall energy used globally also seems to emphasize the strong position that it dominates in the energy sector.


With all the restrictions, be they arise out of the chemical contents, the lack of infrastructure or the absence of long-term policies to use the abundant coal reserves that Pakistan has, the potential to use oil to lessen the dependence on imported oil and many coal-based industrial raw materials which are being imported into the government to be used in various industries, for instance chemicals, paints and tyre.

With improved infrastructure network, consistent long-term policies to encourage use of coal and measures to check the resultant environmental degradation can go a long way to help Pakistan benefit from the abundant coal deposits and reserves.


World Coal Consumption


Use (million tonnes of oil equivalent)













Source: Vital Signs 1998


Reserves and Excavation of Coal In Pakistan


Quantity (x000 tonnes)