Few countries have a tougher time with Mother Nature than Bangladesh. Each year this country of 120 million people is battered by cyclones and flooding, turning life for many of its inhabitants into a grim Malthusian existence. But it turns out that nature has also blessed Bangladesh in the form of natural gas -- and lots of it. While the gas reserves aren't big enough to raise Bangladesh up to the ranks of the rich energy producers of the Middle East, they're large enough to lift it from the bottom rung of poor nations into the middle ranks within a decade or so. That's assuming, however, that Bangladesh can exploit this resource soon.
Strangely, however, the country's response to this potential windfall has been to act as if it doesn't exist. It may be that decades of deprivation have conditioned Bangladeshis to postpone using, or to hoard, whatever isn't essential today for the future. Starvation, after all, is a fresh memory here. "The Bangladeshi view of life is we are desperately poor people, foreigners have come here to steal from us, we are always the suckers -- this is deep in everyone's psyche," explains Forrest Cookson, a long-time resident and local Amcham president.
But there are signs the government finally may be ready to open up the country's natural-gas reserves. One reason: Studies continue to push the reserve estimates upwards. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that new commercially recoverable reserves are about 33 trillion cubic feet. Royal Dutch Shell, which produces 20% of the country's existing demand, believes the figure is actually closer to 38 trillion cubic feet, and is about to sign up new acreage. And industry sources stress that these are conservative estimates. Bangladesh now uses only 0.33 trillion cubic feet of natural gas yearly.
RELYING ON OUTSIDERS. Foreign pressures are pushing for change. The U.S. is keen to ween Bangladesh from its dependency on foreign aid, and foreign-exchange reserves have fallen to a mere two months' worth of imports. Development of its gas resources could add hundreds of millions of dollars to Bangladesh's treasury each year. "I can't imagine that any resident government would want to show it is being unreceptive to foreign investment for any length of time," says Bangladesh economist Rehman Sobhan. But to develop this resource, the country must rely on foreigners, both as producers and consumers. Multinational energy companies are the only real candidates for pumping the stuff from underground.
Now, India is the only practical market for the gas, which could be distributed through pipelines. But Bangladesh's relations with India are very problematic. India literally encircles Bangladesh on three sides, border skirmishes are common, and the two constantly tussle over important issues, such as shared waters. New Delhi enjoys a huge trade surplus but is still a niggardly negotiator, feeding a perception in Bangladesh that the behemoth of the subcontinent is a bully.
To further complicate matters, Bangladesh's government has declared that there can be no gas exports until 50 years' worth of domestic supply is assured. In a rare display of unanimity, the country's two major political parties agree on this point. But this ill-defined target has created a catch-22: The only way to prove that more reserves exist is through more exploration, but no further exploration can occur unless the multinational energy giants are assured that they can export the gas. Unocal is already sitting idly on the Bibiyana field, which estimates say contains 6 trillion cubic feet of gas.
LACK OF TRUST. In the past, the Bangladesh government has tried to obscure the issue by inflating projections of future domestic demand. "One way of not dealing with this issue is to pretend you really don't have so much gas in the first place," says a Western diplomat. "They don't trust themselves, they are afraid of becoming another [corruption-riddled] Nigeria."
But foreign companies emphasize that the window of opportunity is narrowing. Unocal is already looking for customers in New Delhi, the terminus of a proposed $1 billion pipeline. And the opposition party in Bangladesh is pressing for elections this summer or fall. Suddenly, Bangladeshi energy officials have been showing up at regional energy conferences, asking questions.
Scott Barber, who heads Unocal Bangladesh, says he's optimistic that no matter which politcal party wins the coming election, it'll give a thumbs-up for exports within 100 days of coming into office. With a five-year term -- and a four-year lag time between greenlighting the pipeline and initial gas deliveries -- there might be enough time to reap the political benefits from this move as well. That is, if Bangladesh can act. By Ken Stier in Bangladesh