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Undersea Coal Gasification

Cluff Natural Resources (CNR) want use the Durham Coast as a testbed for UCG an experimental method of squeezing out the remaining drops of coal. They have received two licences strtching from Hartlepool to the south edge of Sunderland with no local consultation. UCG involves gasifying underground coal and harvesting the resultant gases. In tests run in Australia UCG wells were found to leak the same substances to groundwater as can be released by fracking. Other tests have prouced blowbacks and explosions. Many test have failed. It has never been used on a commercial basis and never been tried under the sea.

The gas produced is syngas or coal gas. It is a mixture of methane (natural gas), carbon monoxide, hydrogen and 30-50% carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a problem due to climate change. They plan to pump it back into the hole they have made using Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). The UK government has cancelled its £1bn competition for carbon capture and storage. Without governmental money nobody will be able to afford the research necessary to make CCS a commercial proposition. The present situation is that CCS is still a fantasy. Where does that leave UCG?. Surely it would be better to use renewables and not produce the CO2 in the first place

There is of course the carrot of job creation. Any jobs created by fracking will be highly specialized. However, if the same amounts of money were to be invested in renewable energies and/or home and public building insulation, which the public have been shown to prefer as the majority of surveys have shown. There would be far more new jobs, fewer environmental concerns, and beneficial consequences for global warming.

As this project is experimental there is a greater risk of leakages or accidents. Tests in Australia have found benzene and toluene in the ground water. These chemicals affect the health of flora, fauna and human beings. Explosions would release toxic coal gases. As this is the first time UCG will be under the sea, there is no data to show what damage may be done to marine ecosystems or the coastline. It will require the sinking of multiple wells which together with the syngas processing plant will have a detrimental visual effect.

CCS is also an experimental process. This would the first time it has been tried in a cavity formed by coal gasification. In fact, there is very little research into storage of CO2 in coal seams at all. There are problems with sealing in the CO2 and monitoring any leaks that may occur. It has been shown that CCS will not help us to stay under 2C.

The most important reason for not doing UCG is that finding and developing more fossil fuel reserves is a waste of time. To stay below 2C we can only burn about 700Gt of coal before 2050. Present reserves are 2,860Gt. That means 75% of those reserves need to stay underground. It is ridiculous trying to boost those reserves.

Germany gets 30% of it's energy from renewable sources. That allows them to switch off some coal fired powered stations. It is investment in schemes like UCG that is preventing us from matching that.