Cluff Natural Resources said it planned to build the UK’s first underground coal gasification (UCG) plant – a form of “unconventional” gas extraction which has been used in countries such as Russia for almost a century.
Cluff said an independent consultant had verified a find of 335 million tonnes of coal under the Firth in the “Kincardine Licence Area” – more than 43 million tonnes of which it said was suitable for UCG – and is currently working on a planning application for the project.
The firm said in a report that the resource represents 1,395 billion cubic feet (BCF) of natural gas. It said 1 BCF is enough to meet the entire combined energy needs of approximately 11,000 homes for one year and is equivalent to the average annual energy output of 49 of the largest onshore wind turbines.
The Kincardine licence covers an area of 37.6sq km of tidal estuary waters and, according to the Cluff report, is next to the petrochemical plant at Grangemouth, the Longannet power station and “a number of other energy-intensive industries which could benefit from a new low-cost source of fuel gas and petrochemical feedstock”.
But environmental groups have opposed the scheme, saying energy development should be focused on renewable technologies and raising fears that the process could bring toxic substances to the surface, disrupting the ecosystem in the Firth of Forth.
The process sees the coal drilled and mixed with oxygen to produce a fuel-gas mixture called syngas, or synthesis gas, which can be used to power boilers and turbines and is supplied to petrochemical, steel and chemicals industries.
The company behind the scheme, which has to have its plans approved by the Scottish Government before the project can go ahead, says it will mean new jobs in the area and help create energy security in the UK.
Cluff’s chairman and chief executive, Algy Cluff, was one of the first North Sea pioneers of the early 1970s and has claimed the development of UCG technologies could be the “North Sea mark two”.
He said: “This report supports the company’s UCG licence selection and forms the basis for future investment in Scotland while proving the performance of the deep UCG process in a UK context.
“The development of UCG at the Kincardine Licence Area would result in the creation of new jobs, help protect existing industry, as well as create significant supply chain benefits.”
He added: “The emerging UCG industry has a significant role to play in unlocking the UK’s most abundant indigenous energy resource which, with the imminent closure of the last deep coal mines, is now otherwise effectively beyond reach.
“The deep offshore UCG projects being undertaken by CNR [Cluff Natural Resources] have significant environmental, safety, and – when combined with carbon capture and storage – climate-change benefits compared with coal mining and coal-fired power generation.
“We believe that UCG will help provide a cleaner energy, diversity of supply and energy security for the UK.”
Cluff has accumulated eight licences for UCG around Britain, including a second Scottish licence for Largo Bay in Fife, since it was set up two years ago, and has been carrying out engineering and environmental studies to support planning applications.
Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said that, although the process had been used in a number of countries since the 1930s, its safety record was not clear.
He said: “The history of the technology is pretty chequered. We do not have enough records from Russia to prove how safe it has been and, in the US, where they have used the technique since the 1950s, they have had some disasters.
“If you burn rock, it tends to fracture, which can release water which has been in contact with the coal for many years which may create some toxic material.
“This could be an economic and environmental disaster, particularly as this is a very valuable area for things like tourism and fishing.”
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He added: “The last thing we need is more fossil fuels, especially from a dodgy technology with a chequered history. Putting the Forth at risk can’t possibly be worth the risk.”
But Dr Vladimir Kvint, professor of economic strategy of Moscow State University and an expert in coal mining engineering, insisted the practice was safer than other fossil-fuel extraction technologies, such as traditional mining.
“The beauty of it is that no people are underground. You have to drill only two holes – one to put in air and oxygen and another to get the gas out.”
Although Cluff has already been granted a licence for any gas extraction by the UK government, which supports unconventional fossil-fuel extraction methods, plans for the project will have to be passed by the Scottish Government, which has so far demonstrated a more cautious approach.
Energy minister Fergus Ewing said more work was needed to establish a strong regulatory regime to control the industry north of the Border.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We recognise the potential for offshore underground coal gasification and, like any new energy technology, we should proceed cautiously and take an evidence-based approach to ensure that the environment is protected.
“It is vital that potential operators engage with local communities and the key regulators, including local planning authorities and Sepa [the Scottish Environment Protection Agency], and that they can demonstrate that potential projects can be taken forward in an environmentally safe and sustainable way.”
Green MSP Alison Johnstone said: “Just a week after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we need to urgently phase out fossil fuels, we have a company preparing to drill for yet more.”
But Scottish Conservative energy spokesman Murdo Fraser said: “It’s crucial Scotland continues to have a balanced energy approach. That’s why we shouldn’t be closing the door on potential developments such as this which can provide both an energy supply and economic benefit.”
Cluff said it would submit plans for a “pilot-scale demonstration project” but refused to put a timescale on the project.
Any above-ground building is expected to be constructed on existing industrial or brownfield sites adjacent to the Firth of Forth.
So should Scotland allow this type of development?
Lang Banks: NO
We need to see Scotland and the rest of the UK move toward an electricity system largely free of polluting fossil fuels. Plans to “burn” coal under the Firth of Forth will not deliver that aim and should therefore be a complete non-starter. In a worst case scenario, proposals such as this could extend our use of fossil fuels, locking us into a high carbon world.
Just over a week ago, scientists from the United Nations issued their latest predictions of the growing threat from global climate change and the need to be rapidly phasing out our use of fossil fuels. Since the developers themselves have admitted that carbon dioxide will be emitted by their plans, from a climate change perspective, this scheme is nothing short of irresponsible.
Last month, wind turbines in Scotland generated enough electricity to power over three million homes in the UK – equivalent to 126 per cent of the electricity needs of every home north of the Border. We should stick to our renewables ambitions and give new fossil fuels a wide berth.
The reality is that fossil fuels are probably too precious for us to be burning. Whether oil or gas, they are the precursors to the production of plastics and other chemicals that modern society relies on. In years to come we’ll look back and think: “We were really dumb to burn it when it has so many other uses.”
These are fossil fuel reserves that would otherwise be left untouched because they are inaccessible. One of the challenges I see for unconventional gas is that by using it, we are prolonging the amount of time the world will use fossil fuels – and science tells us we should be moving away from that. Even if we could make this work, it just keeps us on the fossil fuel path much, much longer and that is not going to be possible, long term.
Just like fracking and other forms of unconventional fossil fuel extraction, we need to see the Scottish Government send a very strong message that going down this route is not compatible with meeting our climate change reduction targets and tackling climate change globally – and effectively taking steps on calling time on fossil fuel extraction.
• Lang Banks is director of WWF Scotland.
Stuart Haszeldine: YES
Cluff Natural Resources’s offshore deep Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) is a bold and innovative proposal, which could help to regain energy security and value through low-carbon production of fossil fuel. Domestic coal resources exist which are sufficient to supply many decades of secure energy production and feedstock.
But those resources will remain inaccessible until new extraction technology is deployed such as UCG, and unless the produced carbon is captured after use. Fuel and feedstock extracted from coal by underground gasification will be much cleaner than importing coal because most of the engineering occurs deep below ground offshore. Underground gasification will have less impact on the public than other forms of unconventional gas extraction.
Carbon capture is essential to link, and balance between, carbon production and carbon storage. Positioning underground gasification in Central Scotland gives easy and unique access to well understood transport pipelines and reliable sites for CO2 storage deep beneath the North Sea.
Remember the European statistic that despite Scottish progress on renewable electricity, the UK is second from bottom in renewable input into electricity, heat, and transport – with just 4 per cent. Scotland is making much better progress, but even that is discussed only in terms of electricity – not the whole of our energy use. By 2030, the UK may only just reach the average position in European countries today.
Clearly, if Scotland and the UK are interested in creating a transition through to low and zero carbon energies, that is going to take many many years. That is where underground coal gasification may be able to play a role. It must be proved that UCG can be developed within stringent UK standards of environmental protection. But there is optimism that this can be done.
• Stuart Haszeldine is Professor of Carbon Capture and Storage at the University of Edinburgh.
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