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Coming to Britain: Underground Coal Gasification

Loughor Estuary
Cluff Natural Resources holds UCG licences for the Loughor Estuary in Wales eutrophication&hypoxia, under a CC License

You may not have heard of ‘underground coal gasification’, or UCG. But according to Algy Cluff, director of the company Cluff Natural Resources, the technique has potential as a ‘sustainable and low cost energy source’ for Britain, which could ‘rejuvenate the North Sea’ and ‘do much to solve our energy needs and those of continental Europe for decades to come’.

If you can suspend your disbelief that massive fossil fuel exploitation can somehow occur without climate change, it all sounds very promising. Except – as with other hyped new energy technologies such as shale gas – the reality is dramatically removed from the greenwash. And as with shale, 2013 is set to be the year that UCG drilling in Britain proliferates.

Cluff Natural Resources hold UCG licences for the Loughor Estuary, in Carmarthenshire, and the Dee Esturary between Wales and Liverpool. They’re also bidding on a further four. Private company Five-Quarter, who hold licences in the North Sea off the Northumberland coast, are also chomping at the bit.

The unique selling point of UCG is it’s tapping of previously un-minable coal reserves of which Britain has an ample supply, running to billions of tonnes. The process involves deep drilling into coal seams and using horizontal drilling techniques similar to those involved in fracking. Either air or pure oxygen is pumped down one well, and the coal is set on fire underground. The resulting gases are piped to the surface, where a mix of hydrogen, methane and carbon monoxide known as ‘syngas’, can be separated for burning.

If intentionally starting fires deep underground sounds dangerous, that’s because it is. Environmentally, there is a serious risk from UCG of groundwater contamination by the toxic and carcinogenic coal tars left in the coal cavity through well subsistence. Were the technique used at the kind of scale that companies are predicting in their investors’ spiel, it will involve an infrastructure of power plants connected to multiple gasifiers that would significantly scar and industrialise the natural landscape.

The process also produces massive carbon emissions: UCG is so polluting in terms of carbon dioxide it’s been stated that, ‘If an additional 4 trillion tonnes were extracted without the use of carbon capture or other mitigation technologies atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels could quadruple – resulting in a global mean temperature increase of between 5 and 10 degrees Celsius.’ Currently, CCS is more of an idea than a viable technology, despite industry claims that UCG and CCS are a feasible and desirable coupling.

Industry propaganda frequently states that UCG technology is tried and tested. While it’s true that UCG has been tested in the past – in the US, China and by the Soviet Union – on a scale significantly smaller than is proposed in the Britain, these attempts have been plagued by disaster. Recent experiments in Australia resulted in two out of three plants being shut down in 2010. One, in Queensland, exploded after just five days. Carcinogens benzene and toluene were then found in ground water and the fat of grazing animals. Previous tests in the US and Europe have also been plagued by explosions and groundwater contamination.

Not only are there plans for British UCG to be rolled out on a much larger industrial scale than these experiments, but it’s also disregarding the advice gleaned from them: that UCG should not be done in inhabited areas, and sited only where no groundwater can be contaminated. In the rush to ‘pioneer’ UCG, licences in Britain have been sold next to urban centres. A Warwickshire licence that Cluff are eager to get their hands on is, unprecedentedly, onshore and in-land.

As with fracking, it appears the seduction of plundering the last of our fossil fuel reserves has blinded both industry and government to the damage such extreme methods will cause.

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  1. #1 Jed Bland 21 Jun 13

    For a less hysterical account may I refer the reader to Wikipedia ’Underground coal gasification’

  2. #2 michael voll 17 Jul 13


    I'm a MSC student in Oil and Gas (specification to shale Gas) and I red some of your articles and research paper which I found very interesting and enriching.

    I'm doing a dissertation regarding the coporate social responsability during shale gas exploration and production.

    I would like to know more about companies sides, the reality and consequences due to this activity and also the role of external stakeholders to show and explain the narrow link between the comunity and Shale gas companies and the environment.

    It you could fill the survey directly linked to this adress: or if you know any contact I could send this survey or even meet them.

    Thanks in advance


  3. #3 Damon 21 Jul 13

    I am sorry to say that Britain has had decades of incompetent governments and just when you think they can't get any more stupid, who turns up, Cameron and Osbourne with their Bullingdon club pals.

  4. #4 Dave Wolfskehl 30 Jul 13

    I have been tearing my hair out trying to find out how far along Cluff are with their application for the block south of Coventry(Warwickshire).I have located it on the map, and it sits under a beautiful piece of woodland, Ryton Wood, a remnant of the Forest of Arden. Do you know the number of the license perchance, so I can start to raise local objections,

  5. #5 nicholas bulmer 19 Jan 14

    If law was brought in that made enviromental disasters a CRIMINAL offence. So that C.E.Os, directors and even investers were punished by life /lenghy prison sentences and stripping of ALL assets gained from such crimes.Would they be so eager to absolutley gaurantee the safety of such operations. if you think this may help please check out the petition Vivien Westwood has put to the eauropean unions,only 3 days left.

  6. #7 joseph vinson 05 Jan 15

    I think that the underground coal gasification idea should be abolished.

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