Shale gas in Karen state?

A slew of new energy contracts will be signed with foreign energy companies, it was announced after a “special projects implementation meeting” attended by President Thein Sein on Friday.

Most strikingly however it was announced that shale would be sought by two Singaporean companies in co-operation with the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) in Karen state.

The exact location given by the New Light of Myanmar is Mapale, which is a few kilometres north of the main border crossing next to Thailand’s Mae Sot, Myawaddy. Mapale is also on the Moei river that separates the two countries at the ‘friendship bridge’-Thailand’s most westerly point.

The two companies were listed as SNOG pte ltd. and UPR Pte., Ltd both of Singapore. The New Light does not report whether shale oil (oil sands) or shale gas, will be explored for, but Mapale is within 20 miles of the Thai border, and near the Mae Sot shale oil basin, which Apiradee Suwannathong from Thailand’s Shinawatra University notes is the “largest oil shale resource in Thailand”.

Both processes however are seen by opponents as extremely damaging to the environment. The process for shale oil or oil sands differs from the extraction of crude liquid oil because the shale rock is mined as a solid rock, often in open cast pits and then is exposed to extremely high heat, without the presence of oxygen, to extract an exploitable oil from it. Both essential processes are, needless to say energy hungry and considered environmentally damaging, because of emissions, run offs and the topographic effect of open cast mining.

The Mapale area is thought to be under the control of the Democratic Karen Budhhist Army’s 999 brigade and its commander, Chit Htoo. A signatory of the government’s Border Guard Force (BGF) agreement, his soldiers would most likely provide at least some level of security for the process.

The area is, despite the presence of Chit Htoo, extremely volatile after portions of the DKBA rejected the government’s BGF plan and resumed active conflict against the government. Indeed the nearest transport hub, Myawaddy was taken briefly by the forces of rebel commander Saw La Bwe just after last year’s controversial election.

A project of any significant scale would therefore not only require a heightening of security but also considerable transport infrastructure, which could prove a logistical hurdle given the on going conflict. Whilst similar projects in the region, such as the Yetagun pipeline to Thailand were noted for forced relocations, forced labour and other human rights abuses often associated with heightened militarisation in Burma.

The shale rock could potentially however be exported to a site nearer to reliable energy sources and refining facilities, away from the border areas.

Shale gas is also viewed as environmentally damaging, with a report on the BBC alleging a 20% greater carbon footprint from the process, known as ‘fracking’, than coal.

The global rise in energy prices, following turmoil in the middle east, has heightened investment in the industry, with Asian companies alone investing some $20 billion in their North American operations in both shale gas and oil sands in the last two years.

A recent report by the US government’s Energy Information Agency (EIA) however suggests that global deposits of natural gas were increased by 40% if shale gas was taken into account. The majority of these reserves are considered to be in China and the US, but India’s north east that borders Burma is also considered a possibility or an “assessed basin without resource estimate”. Thailand and Burma were not looked into by this recent study, but a 2007 report by Apiradee Suwannathong suggests that the Mae Sot Basin has 952.38 million tons of recoverable shale rock which could produce 182.86 million barrels of oil.

The environmental impact can be assessed from this figure; approximately five tons of rock in the Mae Sot basin is needed to produce a single barrel of oil. A report on the impacts on the industry in Estonia, by Leevi Molder, notes large quantities of “spent shale piles continue to leach toxic substances” into the water. Mitigating the worst of these effects, it is noted is expensive and with little enforcement in Burma, it is unlikely to occur.

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