LVEA EM DISTRICT, Kandal province – Pao Saroeun has had a lot of explaining to do recently.
A long-haired farmer in a country where long hair marks a practicing magician, he made his neighbors more suspicious recently when he struck a potent flow of methane gas in his field as he dug for water.
“I’m not a magician,” protested Pao Saroeun, 62.
But for anyone who asks he will strike a match near the pipe pressed into his field and, voila, a half-meter flame appears.
There’s suspicion on the wind. The air near his home smells like gas, and visitors eager for good luck come to pray at the pipe, leaving incense sticks and random holy objects behind.
More than magic, Pao Saroeun thinks his find could be an opportunity for someone to study the methane fields buried beneath Cambodia’s rice paddies.
Maybe there’s enough to feed an industry, he said.
“I have no plans to sell it, but I want the government experts to come and study it,” he said. “If there is a lot of gas I will give it to the government. I want to show the outside world that Cambodia has natural gas.”
Standing in his field, Pao Saroeun, a father of eight, makes an unlikely energy baron.
He wore only shorts on a recent day, standing in his field in Toultrea village, Preak Kmeng commune, about 20 km from Phnom Penh.
Government experts at first were slow to respond, waiting nearly two months since Pao Saroeun’s find in November.
But now Prime Minister Hun Sen plans to send a team to investigate, said Lim Vatha, a gas expert from the National Petroleum Authority.
“We will go down to take some gas and study it,” he said.
The team will look as well at the potential of bottling gas from Pao Saroeun’s well, which for now simply escapes into the tropical air.
No date has been set for the government’s visit and, while it’s comforting to think that Cambodia may be sitting on a gold mine, the methane gas fields likely will not be big enough to sustain commercial development, Lim Vatha said.
“I don’t think we could do it commercially because I believe there is not a huge amount of methane gas,” he said.
He said he does believe that there are a lot of small pockets of methane buried in Cambodia, though.
“Methane gas is probably in many areas along the Mekong River, such as at a lake bottom where stuff has decayed,” Pao Saroeun said.
Pao Saroeun’s find came as he dug two water wells near his home last November.
He had intended to pump water into his vegetable and rice gardens but he stopped when a powerful smell rose from below his feet. A neighbor happened to have a lighter and, throwing caution aside, lit the pipe. It burned.
The gas field lies below the water table and forces a steady flow of about 10 cubic meters of water up the pipe per day.
Pao Saroeun’s son connected a smaller pipe to the well to bring gas into the family home for cooking.
Methane finds are not uncommon in Cambodia. Last February, a family digging a water well in Russei Keo district struck gas that experts said was the result of rotting vegetation buried beneath their land by city workers who long ago had buried river muck pulled up from a dredging project.
The family said they had cooked a pie with the gas.
Cambodia’s gas pockets could be a sustainable source of energy and deserve more study, Senator Khieu San said.
“I’m very sure that Cambodia has a lot of these reservoirs,” he said. “It’s been two months already that a lot of gas has gone into the air. If we can bottle it, we will make a lot of money,” he said.
For now, Pao Saroeun has found another way to profit from the methane. He charges visitors a small fee to come to the pipe and make their prayers. He pockets 5,000 riel to 8,000 riel (about $1.25 to $2) daily.