India recently said it would suspend new coal plant projects for the next five years. Elsewhere, old coal plants are slowly being retired and new projects have been canceled, according to Global Energy Monitor, which tracks coal plant construction.
The big outlier is China, which is building more coal plants than the rest of the world combined.
The 1,320-megawatt coal project in Rampal has been additionally contested because it is less than 10 miles upriver from the gateway to the world’s largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans. A UNESCO world heritage site, it is home to the Bengal tiger, rare river dolphins and several species of mangroves. Environmentalists say the coal plant could damage the area’s air and water.
“It’s a good thing it’s sitting idle. It’s not emitting lethal gas,” Sultana Kamal, a veteran Dhaka-based environmental advocate, said during one of the recent shutdowns. “On the other hand, it’s a huge wastage of public money. It only shows how ill-planned the whole thing was.”
Sail north along the Pashur River from the dense, dark tangle of the Sundarbans forest, you first pass women, waist-deep in water, hauling nets to scoop up young shrimp to sell to shrimp farms inland. Villages are hemmed in by mud embankments that can crumble when the tides are high or a storm passes through.
It is also a busy industrial thoroughfare. On the riverbanks are cement plants and bulbous tanks to store imported gas. The port town of Mongla is dotted with factories stitching fast fashion for export.
Then there is the 900-foot smokestack of the coal plant, topped with a bright red light.
The plant’s managers say they have taken precautions against environmental risks. Coal is to be ferried in covered barges to prevent coal dust from scattering. Gypsum, a byproduct of coal-burning, is to be sold to cement factories. Ash ponds are to be covered. “We understand this is a very sensitive area,” said Bappaditya Sarkar, a general manager.
The country’s coal rollout reflects its diplomatic strategy. Maitree is a joint project with the Indian state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation. A second coal project has started sending electricity into Bangladesh from a coal plant in India, run by the Indian conglomerate Adani. China helped with two coal plants, in Barisal and Payra. Japan is funding another, under construction in Matarbari.