Expediting oil exploration | Daily News

Expediting oil exploration

Black Gold or oil has changed the fortunes of many countries, especially those in the Middle East. These countries remained impoverished in the 1960s, but the discovery of ample oil and gas reserves in their territories and waters catapulted them to First World status. Today, they are among the richest countries on Earth.

Sri Lanka has been dipping its toes in oil exploration since the 1960s, but commercial exploitation has so far proved to be elusive. Although India has been extracting oil and gas from the seas close to Sri Lanka since the 1940s, Sri Lanka has missed this opportunity due to various reasons.

In 1967-68 France’s Compaigne General de Geophysicque collected approximately 420 km of onshore and 75 km of offshore seismic data on behalf of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC or Ceypetco). The Soviets, with their increased interest in South Asia in the 1970s, recorded 4,837 Km of marine seismic data in 1972 to 1975 along with some onshore data to evaluate the Palk Bay area in the Cauvery Basin under an agreement with the Sri Lankan Government.

More than 50 years on from these events, there are emerging signs that the needle is moving in the direction of commercial extraction. Exploration work has shown that two prospective offshore sedimentary basins accessible by current technology are situated in Sri Lanka, namely the Cauvery and Mannar basins. Other deposits are believed to exist, but they could be out of reach via current extraction technologies.

Yet, this is no overnight process – expect around 10-15 years before we see the results. A country would succeed in one when drilling seven wells in search for oil and gas according to world standards. But the data, which has recently been updated and mapped, looks very promising indeed. Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila has said that oil and gas resources/deposits worth of US$ 267 billion in the Mannar Basin could generate three times the total debt of the country. The Minister was speaking at the Consultative Committee on Energy in Parliament.

The Minister was briefing the Committee including the Parliamentarians on the Petroleum Resources Bill to be tabled in Parliament for the Second Reading. The Bill was approved by the Committee.

The Minister said that the Bill, which seeks to regulate and manage the exploration of petroleum resources, including the establishment of the Petroleum Development Authority of Sri Lanka, will be presented to Parliament as a matter of priority by the Government.

The establishment of a Petroleum Development Authority is a timely move. This should be staffed by Sri Lankans and expatriates who are experts in various aspects of the petroleum industry. In this regard, the Government should seek the expertise of hundreds of Sri Lankans involved in the oil industry worldwide. Foreign investors will also be more inclined to deal with a dedicated oil exploration body staffed by experts that can be a one-stop shop for all approvals.

But Sri Lanka should expedite the licensing and exploration activities before oil runs out of fashion. The use of fossil fuels is being blamed – and rightly so – for the increase in Greenhouse Gas emissions around the world that has led to Climate Change. From the recent destructive wildfires in Greece to the devastating floods in Germany, the increased use of fossil fuels is believed to be behind a massive shift in climatic patterns worldwide. Moreover, a sea level rise and a temperature rise of 1.5-2 degrees Celsius are also predicted by the turn of the century if present levels of fossil fuel consumption continue. This could displace much of the coastal communities, making them climate refugees.

Most countries including Sri Lanka itself are moving towards renewable energy such as solar, wind, geothermal and even ocean waves. Most countries have also banned the registration of fossil fuel cars after 2030 or 2035. Only electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars can be registered afterwards. Many countries can already power their entire grids through renewable energy on demand, though not 24/7. It must be borne in mind that the bulk of fossil fuels now go towards thermal energy generation, not essentially transport. Oil will lose its sheen when it is no longer needed for either of these.

However, any reports of the death of oil are greatly exaggerated. Oil could be with us for another 100 years, Natural Gas for 200 and coal possibly for 300. There are some industries that cannot run without oil, at least for the moment. Aviation is the leading such industry. Current electric battery technology is simply not sufficient to lift a heavy plane off the ground and keep it in the air for 15-16 hours. Planes have been modified to run on synthetic biofuels, but the difficulties associated with biofuel production have precluded mass conversion. Experts say it will take at least 40-50 years for alternative propulsion systems to become viable for aviation. This is an opportunity that all new petroleum producing countries should exploit. If we can get our act together during this window before petroleum products lose their importance and significance, the sky is the limit for Sri Lanka.

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