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Beneath eastern fields may lie India's energy saviour

Shine Jacob  |  Ichapur (West Bengal) 

A group of scientists and technical experts is working overnight on the country’s first shale gas well, RNSG-1, at Ichapur in Burdwan district of West Bengal. Their mandate, though challenging, may well be a game changer.

With auctions round the corner, shale may turn out to be the new buzz for the country’s energy sector. “With a thickness of about 800 metres, the Damodar Basin is one of the largest in the world in terms of volume. We have successfully completed the first of the four stages of the project. Now that the presence of the gas is proven, the next challenge is to ascertain its potential and commercial viability,” said a senior Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) official, who did not want to be named.

This research and development (R&D) activity is being undertaken by state-owned ONGC, in collaboration with oil field services company, Schlumberger. Though the project started with a budget of Rs 128 crore, it is expected to go up to Rs 168 crore. “The expense has increased because the government has not allowed Customs exemptions and also due to a strike that happened at the work site sometime back. But more than the cost, the output is important for our country,” he added.

Of the four wells, the other two are at North Karanpura in Jharkhand. According to estimates, basin-level resource of shale gas in India ranges between 600 and 2,000 trillion cubic feet (tcf). The resource estimate for the US is around 3,500 tcf and China 2,500 tcf. ONGC, too, believes that the cumulative thickness of shale formations in the 26 sedimentary basins of India is comparable or better than the best global shale players.

“We have already drilled 1,700 metres of up to 2,000 metres that we are to drill. Though this is one of the largest basins in terms of volume, the quality of shale may be different in some areas. For example, in places where we don’t have to drill so deep, the quality may not be that good. But, the team has lined up a geotechincal order on how to drill,” he added.

However, it will take another four to five months for the final results of this R&D activity to be out. “The research at Raniganj basin in Damodar Valley will be over with in five to six months. So, we are expecting to come up with results by July,” said P K Bhowmick, head of the Keshava Deva Malaviya Institute of Petroleum Exploration (KDMIPE) in Dehradun and a member of ONGC’s shale gas research team. After the research, the initial results will be sent to the US for processing. More than 200 people are working at the site to meet the deadline. KDMIPE is directly monitoring the works here and its core group of scientists includes Bhowmick, P K Mahato, Ravi Misra and D Ghosh.

“Some Coal India work is going on here.” This was the first response a villager gave on ground zero in Ichapur village. Strange, but quite expected from a tribal hamlet in a coal belt, for which the black gold is part of the life.

“We don’t know too much about what is happening inside the block. People are saying somebody has discovered gas here. We just come here to do some labour work, but officials here never allow us to handle the equipment,” said one of the contract workers. The block has about 150 specialists and 51 labourers working day and night to successfully complete the country’s dream venture. “They pay us about Rs 170-200 a day. But, this happened only after we went on a strike,” he added.

For any investor in the state, a major concern would be land issues, given what happened in Singur and Nandigram. But the locals want jobs, not arid stretches of land that have no value. “What happened in Singur will not happen here. We just need work,” said Bijan Pal, a local resident, though they are a bit concerned about the surveys happening in the agricultural area.

Initial studies indicate shale gas here will be able to feed the country for up to 50 years. So, experts expect the same shale wonder that transformed US from an energy-deficient nation to a surplus one. Shale gas accounts for nearly 17 per cent of the total gas production in the US. “If India can achieve even 10 per cent in the next decade, it would be a big achievement,” an ONGC scientist said.

The shale revolution is also going to bring down the cost of gas. It is expected to cost around $2 per million British thermal unit (mBtu) compared to $4.2 an mBtu for natural gas and coal-bed methane.

“Before thinking about prices, there should be a proper policy in place. It will take more than four-five years for us to produce shale gas commercially on a large scale,” said Alok Deshpande, an Elara Capital oil & gas analyst.

First Published: Thu, February 17 2011. 00:24 IST
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