Burning underground coal left ‘trail of destruction’ 4

Burning underground coal left ‘trail of destruction’

Plans to set fire to coal under the seabed at up to 19 sites around the UK would cause massive climate pollution, groundwater contamination and toxic waste, according to a new report by environmentalists.

The UK government’s Coal Authority has granted licences for underground coal gasification (UCG) covering over 1,500 square kilometres of seabed off northeast and northwest England, Wales and east central Scotland.

The Scottish and Welsh governments have put temporary moratoriums on the technology because of concerns about the dangers. Scottish ministers are awaiting an independent review in September, which is likely to be critical of UCG.

But a company led by the veteran oil entrepreneur and former owner of The Spectator, Algy Cluff, is still pursuing major developments near the shores of northern England.

Cluff Natural Resources has licences for nine potential undersea coalfields amounting to 640 square kilometres, valid until 2018-2020. Two are off the coast near Durham, two off Cumbria, two off Wales and three in the Firth of Forth in Scotland.

The company says that progress in Scotland “has been delayed due to local politics”. But it is continuing “to evaluate the development options for its acreage in England, particularly the northeast of England, which shares many of the commercial advantages of the Firth of Forth projects.”

Another ten licences for UCG around the coast valid until December this year or January 2018 are held by Five Quarter in Newcastle. Though the company ceased trading in March this year, there are fears that its licences could still be assigned to others (see table below).

UCG involves drilling boreholes up to a kilometre deep, setting fire to underground coal seams, and extracting the resulting gas to heat homes. But according to the new report by Friends of the Earth International, it has “left a trail of destruction in its wake across the world.”

The report says that UCG has caused groundwater contamination, subsidence, accidents and toxic waste where it has been deployed in Australia, South Africa and the US. Its total potential carbon dioxide emissions – 1,650 billion tonnes globally, or 46 billion tonnes in the UK – would wreck efforts to cut climate pollution, it warns.

“On climate change grounds alone there is no way these plans can possibly make sense,” says Flick Monk, the report’s author from Friends of the Earth Scotland.

“Given what we know about this technology’s terrible history around the world, Cluff’s plans to burn coal seams off English coasts are utterly reckless. The UK Government should stop this industry now before Cluff gets his foot in the door.”

Lisa Bellamy, coordinator of a Friends of the Earth Group in Alnwick, Northumberland, is worried that UCG technologies are unproven. “It is unclear who, if anyone, will take responsibility for their regulation,” she says.

But Andrew Nunn, the chief operating officer of Cluff Natural Resources, accused Friends of the Earth of having a “predetermined position” on fossil fuels. “We fully expect that this new report will continue to perpetuate that position by ignoring those UCG projects which have proceeded without incident and focusing purely on a small number of projects which fall well short of the standards that would be required to operate a UCG project in the UK,” he said.

“This is a blatant attempt to influence the public and other stakeholders prior to the publication of the Scottish Government’s independent report on UCG.”

Licenses for underground coal gasification

locationhectaresdeveloperlicence valid until
North Sea, north of Durham10,052Cluff Natural Resources August 2019
North Sea, south of Durham10,338Cluff Natural Resources August 2019
North Sea, off Amble, Northumberland9,800Five QuarterDecember 2016
North Sea, off Blyth, Northumberland8,395Five QuarterJanuary 2018
North Sea, off Longhoughton, Northumberland9,380Five QuarterJanuary 2018
North Sea, off Lynemouth, Northumberland 8,995Five QuarterJanuary 2018
North Sea, off Tynemouth9,545Five QuarterJanuary 2018
North Sea, off Sunderland9,730Five QuarterDecember 2016
Irish Sea, Liverpool Bay, Wirral8,350Five QuarterDecember 2016
Irish Sea, off Maryport, Cumbria 10,003Cluff Natural ResourcesAugust 2019
Irish Sea, off Workington, Cumbria8,238Cluff Natural ResourcesAugust 2018
Loughor Estuary, South Wales4,207Cluff Natural ResourcesJanuary 2018
Dee Estuary, near Liverpool6,953Cluff Natural ResourcesJanuary 2018
Firth of Forth, off Frances, Kirkcaldy, Fife 7,500Cluff Natural ResourcesApril 2020
Firth of Forth, off Kincardine, Fife3,687Cluff Natural ResourcesJuly 2018
Firth of Forth, Largo Bay7,796Cluff Natural ResourcesAugust 2018
Central Firth of Forth9,160Five QuarterDecember 2016
Firth of Forth, off Musselburgh, East Lothian7,155Five QuarterDecember 2016
Solway Firth, off Canonbie, Dumfries and Galloway2,800Five QuarterDecember 2016
source: The Coal Authority

List of UK licences for underground coal gasification from the Coal Authority

Photo thanks to Randen PedersonCC by 2.0.

A version of this article was published in The Guardian on 25 July 2016.

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