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Behind the red alert: There’s more to the airspace lockdown in Pakistan than meets the eye

Pakistan’s use of energy sources is led by the industrial sector at 35.4% (IRENA, 2018) and followed by transportation 32.4% (IRENA, 2018).

The frenzy of screenshots of flight tracking apps all over social media revealing empty airspace in Pakistan has been fuelling the mill of speculations of a war brewing. The country is on high alert, no doubt, owing to the Indian Air Force’s unexpected strikes against terror camps in Balakot, which Pakistan indignantly claims as an attack on their soil. But what purpose does an immediate lockdown of the airspace serve, other than to raise guard in anticipation of further attacks? Curiously, the Indian state gave no indication of escalation, their stance being the strikes were ‘non-military’ action against terror.

Considering the circumstances of the stand-off between the two states, which is merely an out-in-the-open acknowledgement of the strain that has been felt quite tangible for many months now, it does not make sense why Pakistan would want to shut down its entire airspace to commercial aircraft? Even if we assume that India is in the mood to hammer Pakistan, why did Pakistan not shut just its Eastern airspace?

Wars have been fought over territory and resources – to acquire and dominate, but rarely do we study the role of resources needed to start or sustain a war in the first place. Strangely so in the age of nuclear armaments, where any threat of war is assessed purely on the basis of a potential nuclear escalation. We may now safely guess that Pakistan isn’t quite willing or prepared to press the red button. Shutting the air space isn’t a prerequisite for it. So we have room to speculate about the resources they have for a conventional war if that’s what they are preparing for. Here’s an overview:

For those interested in energy economics it’s a well-known fact that Pakistan has an underdeveloped energy sector and struggles to meet the fuel and power demands of its citizens.

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A recent report in 2018 by the International Renewable Energy Agency stated that half the rural population in Pakistan doesn’t have access to electricity. The report starts by asserting that the increasing gap between energy supply and demand has reached as high as 7 GW and has severely affected the economic and social development in the country.  The situation is further complicated by Pakistan’s overdependence on imported hydrocarbon energy supplies. Pakistan energy dependence is roughly 45% natural gas followed by 35% fuel oil. In contrast, the energy mix of Bangladesh is roughly 55% natural gas and 25% fuel oil.

Here’s a look into their fuel consumption: Pakistan’s use of energy sources is led by the industrial sector at 35.4% (IRENA, 2018) and followed by transportation 32.4% (IRENA, 2018).

If this is a dismal picture of their energy resources with regards to regular fuel, where do they stand with regards to jet fuel usage?

Based on EIA data from the Index Mundi site, Pakistan produces 4,000 barrels per day (bpd) of jet fuel. The world’s biggest producer in the US at 1,471,000 bpd and India is at no.6 producing 219,000 bpd. For a country the size of Pakistan, this is too small a number and the criticality of the situation is further accentuated by their troubled relationships with neighbouring countries and unique geographic challenges.

A 2017 Dawn article stated that Pakistan was struggling to meet the jet fuel supply requirements for commercial and defence aircraft. Apparently, defence officials had voiced their concerns on this as well. Sources indicate that Pakistan State Oil (PSO) had issued several warnings to the petroleum division of the Ministry of Energy about the possibility of dry-outs at several airports in the country.

The Dawn (2017) article predicted a likelihood of the airports of Lahore, Sialkot, Multan, Faisalabad and Islamabad running dry of jet fuel by December that year. The tendering and supply chain cycle within Pakistan at that time were ill-equipped to address this shortage by quick imports. For this reason, the PSO had asked the government to ensure the regulated production of jet fuel to them by the largest refineries in Pakistan. PSO went on to get assurances from the government to allow them to import jet fuel bypassing standard processes in the event local refineries are unable to meet the regulated jet fuel production demands.

The energy situation in Pakistan took at interesting turn in 2015 when Pakistan started its first LNG import terminal at Port Qasim in Karachi, followed by the second one at the same location in 2017. Based on an article in The News (2018), the Pakistan government’s shift from furnace oil to cleaner-burning natural gas for power generation has created the unique situation of refineries in Pakistan having to likely shut down due to an excess of furnace oil. The article went on to say that the Oil Companies Advisory Council (OCAC) had warned towards the end of 2018 that all major refineries in Pakistan are operating at suboptimal levels and are heading towards shutdowns if the offtake of furnace oil for consumption of power plants aren’t increased urgently.

The furnace fuel oil consumption slowdown has seriously affected all the major refineries in Pakistan including Pak Arab Refinery (PARCO), Pakistan Refinery Limited (PRL), National Refinery Limited (NRL) and Attock Refinery Limited (ARL). PARCO which is a joint venture between the governments of Pakistan and Abu Dhabi has been facing one of the lowest production levels. Reports indicate the refinery is running at 65% and is facing the likelihood of shutdown if the offtake of furnace oil isn’t increased soon.

Due to the nature of the refining process, a shutdown will mean that the entire hydrocarbon supply chain will be broken resulting in the refinery not being able to produce jet fuel which is critical to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Now we arrive at a theory, based on ample clues, of how shutting down airspace is not simply a cautionary measure for Pakistan but an inevitable and a desperate move to conserve jet fuel for any state of readiness that the current situation demands. Going further, it might even shed light on the worryingly (for Pakistan) slow reflexes of the PAF during the IAF’s Balakot strikes. While they ‘scrambled’ (the PAF’s own words) to figure out what hit them, the furious citizens took to social media to question the efficacy of their fighter jets and the alertness of the Forces. Perhaps the clue is inside the fuel tanks.

References:

  1. Half of rural population in Pakistan still lack access to electricity, reveals report https://tribune.com.pk/story/1683780/2-half-villages-pakistan-still-lack-access-electricity-reveals-report/
  2. Renewables Readiness Assessment: Pakistan https://irena.org/publications/2018/Apr/Renewables-Readiness-Assessment-Pakistan
  3. Speeding up rural electrification https://www.dawn.com/news/1427982
  4. Transforming the power sector in Bangladesh https://www.pwc.in/assets/pdfs/industries/power-mining/executive-summary-pwc-bippa-report-on-transforming-the-power-sector-in-bangladesh/transforming-the-power-sector-in-bangladesh.pdf
  5. Fuel import bill surges 30pc https://www.dawn.com/news/1434196
  6. Pakistan’s energy-related imports increase 34% to $1.27b https://tribune.com.pk/story/1786223/2-pakistans-energy-related-imports-increase-34-1-27b/
  7. Jet Fuel Production by Country https://www.indexmundi.com/energy/?product=jet-fuel&graph=production&display=rank
  8. Jet fuel shortage on the horizon in Pakistan https://www.dawn.com/news/1375390
  9. Analysis: Pakistan oil refineries fear shutdown on rising fuel oil stocks https://www.spglobal.com/platts/en/market-insights/latest-news/oil/113018-analysis-pakistan-oil-refineries-fear-shutdown-on-rising-fuel-oil-stocks
  10. Oil refineries fear shutdown on slow offtakes of furnace oil https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/399061-oil-refineries-fear-shutdown-on-slow-offtakes-of-furnace-oil
  11. Pakistanhttps://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/pak/
  12. Engro Corporation Limited https://www.engro.com/our-business/
  13. Pakistan GasPort http://www.ag.com.pk/pakistan-gasport/
  14. Pakistan’s second LNG import terminal to restart on Dec. 8 – company https://in.reuters.com/article/pakistan-lng-gasport/pakistans-second-lng-import-terminal-to-restart-on-dec-8-company-idINKBN1E11X6
  15. PARCO – Pak Arab Refinery Limited https://www.parco.com.pk/

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