Freedom of information

Government deletes statement supporting underground coal gasification

The Scottish Government has deleted a statement backing plans for underground coal gasification (UCG) from its website after a complaint from an environmental campaigner.

The statement of support for the controversial gas extraction technique, made subject to a moratorium by Scottish ministers on 8 October after pressure from activists, was in a section of the government’s website entitled Cleaner Coal Technologies.

It said: “Alternative mining technologies, such as underground coal gasification, are attracting interest both globally and from a number of developers in Scotland. The Scottish Government are supportive of such innovative technologies which offer the potential for a secure, economic and low carbon energy store.”

The statement went on to explain that the first licence for UCG in the UK had been awarded off the coast of Fife, adding that the move was a “positive step in the development of UCG technology”.

Critics of new fossil fuel extraction techniques have claimed this is evidence that the Scottish Government’s moratorium on fracking and UCG is merely a “cynical delaying tactic” to allow politicians to avoid making a final decision until after the Scottish Parliamentary elections next May.

The statement was spotted – and copied – by a campaigner in Ireland, Geraldine Ring, who runs the @frackfreemps Twitter account. It was removed after she complained about the apparently contradictory policy positions being promoted by the Scottish Government.

“I spotted the statement on their website, on Tuesday October 20,” Ring said. “And although I’m not Scottish or even British, I’ve been paying close attention to developments in Scotland.  I came across the UCG page on the Scottish Government website following a conversation with a Scottish friend who believes there’s no reason to hold your government to account on this issue.”

She conducted an online search and came across the page supporting UCG. “My friend challenged me to ask the Scottish Government why it was promoting UCG on its website so I did, along with another couple of questions,” she added.

“I didn’t check the website again until October 26 when I noticed the page had been deleted. It wasn’t until a few days later that I received a reply from the Scottish government to my email.”

In her letter to the Scottish Government, Ring outlined a number of concerns regarding both fracking and UCG and she questioned its decision to openly promote UCG.

“I see that the official Scottish government website has a section on underground coal gasification, which openly promotes its development,” she wrote. “Is it appropriate to promote UCG while there is supposed to be a moratorium in place?”

Ring also queried a statement by Scotland’s First Minister in the Scottish Parliament on 17 September 2015, when Nicola Sturgeon said: “There will be no fracking in Scotland until the government and the parliament are in receipt of all the relevant and necessary information to taker an evidence-based decision.”

“Could you explain precisely why there is a need to gather further evidence to determine the safety of fracking when there are now over 550 scientific studies detailing the grave risks,” Ring wrote.

“New York State recently banned fracking on public health grounds. France and Bulgaria banned fracking, in 2011 and 2012 respectively, well before this now significant body of scientific evidence was available. Why are you wasting taxpayers’ money on gathering evidence when there is already more than enough of it available?”

In response to Ring, the Scottish Government said in a letter that its statement supporting UCG was removed from its website due to its “historic nature”.

It added: “The Scottish Government is committed to open and accurate communication: the information to which you have referred has therefore been removed from the website due to its historic nature. This action was necessary to ensure that the website correctly reflects the Scottish Government’s position on UCG.

“The accuracy of the information we present is an important aspect of our commitment to open and transparent government. In line with this commitment, the Scottish Government has carefully considered the views being expressed on UCG.

On 8 October the Scottish Government announced a moratorium on UCG. This moratorium is in line with the cautious, evidence-based approach we have taken towards unconventional oil and gas, and will allow us to carefully examine this new technology and the issues concerning communities.”

Regarding Ring’s questions on fracking, the Scottish Government replied it had taken “a cautious and evidence-based approach to unconventional oil and gas.”

Its letter continued: ”On 28th January 2015 the Scottish Government announced a moratorium on granting consents for unconventional oil and gas developments in Scotland while further research, including a Public Health Impact Assessment, and a full public consultation are carried out.

“No fracking will take place in Scotland while the moratorium remains in place.

“On 8th October, the Scottish Government confirmed that the public consultation will begin once this comprehensive period of research has been completed and the results published.”

In response to that letter, Ring said: “I found the reply unsatisfactory in the least. That it took a member of the public to alert the Scottish Government to its incoherent public narrative is very concerning but this incident has made more people question the true intentions of the government, and that is a good thing, in my view.”

Environmental groups also criticised the Scottish Government for publicly supporting fracking and UCG while moratoriums were in place.

Billy McChord, of Stirling Against Unconventional Gas Development, said: “This report from the Scottish Government’s own website stating that “the Scottish Government are supportive of such …technologies” will only serve to confirm the fears of many communities.

“It would appear that contrary to the mood music emanating from Government ministers at Holyrood, that the moratorium is merely a cynical delaying tactic, postponing the desecration of our environment and risking the public health of our citizens until after the Holyrood election in May 2016.”

That it took a member of the public to alert the Scottish Government to its incoherent public narrative is very concerning Geraldine Ring

Juliana Muir, founder of another group opposed to UCG called Our Forth, said the Scottish Government must “come off the fence” and pointed to a recent survey of 1000 Portobello locals by the local community council, showing that a large majority of locals were opposed to UCG.

She said: “Communities like ours are completely opposed to underground coal gasification, as a recent survey by our community council has proved with over 90% opposition in Portobello.

“The Scottish Government needs to decide whether it is supporting the communities it represents or the businesses set to profit from blighting them.

“If it stays on the fence then it is likely to find communities will use their own, robust evidence-based approach, as to who to vote for.”

Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone argued that the Scottish Government should be focussed on supporting renewable energy industries and not “a new wave of fossil fuel extraction.”

She said: “Whether it’s Energy Minister Fergus Ewing asking us not to close our minds to experimental drilling, or First Minister Nicola Sturgeon suggesting research is better than saying no to developing coal gas, the SNP have consistently attempted to fudge this issue.

“UCG remains a distraction from the real opportunities Scotland has to create good jobs in energy efficient housing, renewables and oil and gas decommissioning.”

The SNP MP for the Edinburgh East area, which includes the Portobello area, Tommy Sheppard told The Ferret after the Scottish Government extending its moratorium on fracking to cover UCG that he views UCG as “more problematic than fracking.”

Cluff Natural Resources wants permission to build the UK’s first deep offshore UCG project near Kincardine. In December 2014, Cluff was awarded five licences covering 11 blocks in the UK’s 28th Offshore Licensing Round.

A statement on its website says: “All of the blocks are located in the Southern North Sea in close proximity to the Breagh Gas Field.”

“The company believes this is an under-explored, emerging area which is potentially responsive to the latest seismic and drilling technology, where fields can be developed quickly and infrastructure is evolving rapidly. All licences are 100% owned.”

“UCG is a process which involves targeting stranded coal and converting it into gas in-situ. It offers the potential for the UK to unlock the energy potential of the vast amount of the country’s un-mined coal.”

“The Company has built a portfolio of 9 UCG licences in the UK covering a total of 680km² across England, Scotland and Wales. The Company’s Founder, Algy Cluff, has extensive experience and contacts obtained during 40 years’ of successful investing in the natural resource sector.”

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