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.
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.
On climate change grounds alone there is no way these plans can possibly make sense Flick Monk, Friends of the Earth 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.”
This is a blatant attempt to influence the public and other stakeholders Andrew Nunn, Cluff Natural Resources
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
|location||hectares||developer||licence valid until|
|North Sea, north of Durham||10,052||Cluff Natural Resources||August 2019|
|North Sea, south of Durham||10,338||Cluff Natural Resources||August 2019|
|North Sea, off Amble, Northumberland||9,800||Five Quarter||December 2016|
|North Sea, off Blyth, Northumberland||8,395||Five Quarter||January 2018|
|North Sea, off Longhoughton, Northumberland||9,380||Five Quarter||January 2018|
|North Sea, off Lynemouth, Northumberland||8,995||Five Quarter||January 2018|
|North Sea, off Tynemouth||9,545||Five Quarter||January 2018|
|North Sea, off Sunderland||9,730||Five Quarter||December 2016|
|Irish Sea, Liverpool Bay, Wirral||8,350||Five Quarter||December 2016|
|Irish Sea, off Maryport, Cumbria||10,003||Cluff Natural Resources||August 2019|
|Irish Sea, off Workington, Cumbria||8,238||Cluff Natural Resources||August 2018|
|Loughor Estuary, South Wales||4,207||Cluff Natural Resources||January 2018|
|Dee Estuary, near Liverpool||6,953||Cluff Natural Resources||January 2018|
|Firth of Forth, off Frances, Kirkcaldy, Fife||7,500||Cluff Natural Resources||April 2020|
|Firth of Forth, off Kincardine, Fife||3,687||Cluff Natural Resources||July 2018|
|Firth of Forth, Largo Bay||7,796||Cluff Natural Resources||August 2018|
|Central Firth of Forth||9,160||Five Quarter||December 2016|
|Firth of Forth, off Musselburgh, East Lothian||7,155||Five Quarter||December 2016|
|Solway Firth, off Canonbie, Dumfries and Galloway||2,800||Five Quarter||December 2016|
List of UK licences for underground coal gasification from the Coal Authority
A version of this article was published in The Guardian on 25 July 2016.