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.

‘Frack free’: a Sussex village gets organized

people join hands with placards against fracking
Community resistance against fracking is growing. This protest took place in Colarado Erie Rising, under a CC License

At some point during June 2013 – no-one knows exactly when – the quiet and beautiful West Sussex village of Balcombe will become the first major battleground of Britain’s shale rush. Lord Browne, the chairman of Cuadrilla Resources, has said he’ll do ‘whatever it takes’ to ensure the success of plans to prove the viability of fracking gas and oil in Britain, a crusade mired in controversy since it began. Balcombe, where preparatory work for a 914 metre well has already been completed, is next in line.

Unluckily for Browne, he’s not the only one using fighting talk. Balcombe residents are fiercely opposed to a well pad on their doorstep. Networking with activists nationally and internationally, they’ve adopted tactics from the highly effective ‘Lock the Gate’ campaigns in Australia, where communities determined to protect their lands from environmental catastrophe have gas companies running scared. Three companies have withdrawn from New South Wales this year to date.

A key tactic is surveying the locality to get the opinion of residents: ‘We’re using the “frack free community strategy,”’ says local campaigner Anna Dart, who grew up in Balcombe. The results of their survey so far show that the small community of less than 2,000 is ‘nearly unanimous’ in its opposition to the Cuadrilla project. In Australia this method has been far from symbolic, with the communities going on to get organized and to resist the invasion.

‘If a gas company does come and frack, it shows that firstly there is absolutely no social licence to do it, and shows the complete failure of any supposed democracy,’ Dart explains. ‘Also, the bottom line of the strategy is that when certain people decide to take peaceful direct action, the whole community is united with those taking the action. It’s a united community defending itself.’

Licences for unconventional gas extraction have been sold off in blocks in a wide swathe of countryside, which sits between the North and South Downs. The stakes in Balcombe are high for both camps. The village’s role as the first target for the proliferation of gas drilling across the Weald area makes it crucial – for both fracking companies and those determined to stop them.

Cuadrilla’s holding company AJ Lucas declared in a stakeholder statement in May 2012 that they have 23,067 hectares in Sussex as assets for exploratory drilling. Meanwhile rival company Celtique Energy are boasting that there’s 10 trillion cubic feet of gas in the Weald basin – an amount which, based on the average shale gas well production, would entail the drilling of over 6,000 wells. Should the gas industry get its way, the Weald area will undergo wholesale industrialization with well pads, pipelines, compressor stations and processing plants littering the landscape.

The Balcombe site’s geographical location means any leakages or pollution could have disastrous effects. It’s less than a mile from the River Ouse and reservoirs, both of which provide drinking water for tens of thousands of homes. Pollution of water sources is both a likely and frightening prospect, based on the experience of the US, Canada and Australia. It’s also surrounded by the Lower Stumble Woods, a home for numerous protected species.

For now, villagers are cracking on with planning their resistance. The anti-fracking signs, being prepared for display in neighbourly unity outside Balcombe households, mirror those found across rural Australian communities. They’re emblematic of an emerging social movement against unconventional gas which spans from the super-local to the global. ‘Everyone’s starting to talk with each other across the world about this, which is really exciting, it’s crossing political boundaries,’ says Dart. ‘I suppose that’s the silver lining of this really horrible cloud.’

For more information on extreme energy go to the Frack Off website.

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