Scottish Government bans Underground Coal Gasification

A protesters against UCG gather under the Forth Bridge
A protesters against UCG gather under the Forth Bridge
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A controversial gas extraction technique that could be used to exploit fossil fuels trapped beneath the Firth of Forth has been banned in Scotland.

At Holyrood, environment minister Paul Wheelhouse outlawed underground coal gasification (UCG) – an industrial process which involves converting coal to gas while under the earth’s surface.

Energy firm Cluff Natural Resources had planned to use the technique to take advantage of coal seams under the Scottish sea bed which cannot be mined conventionally.

The company’s plans for the UK’s first deep offshore UCG plant at Kincardine in Fife will now not go ahead.

Cluff had claimed UCG could generate £13 billion for the UK, with almost half of it being retained in Scotland. It also estimated almost 5,000 jobs could be created in Scotland.

The decision was welcomed by environmental campaigners, who hoped the decision would be followed by an all-out ban on fracking.

The Scottish Government’s wider moratorium on unconventional oil and gas extraction, including fracking, remains in place. A final decision on how to handle fracking will be made following the publication of government reports on the issue.

Addressing MSPs, Mr Wheelhouse referred to a report by Professor Campbell Gemmell into the technique which was commissioned by the Scottish Government.

Mr Wheelhouse noted that the report identified a series of problems, including soil ­contamination, the exposure of workers to toxins after ­operational failures and the production of greenhouse ­gases, which would make it more difficult to hit green targets.

The minister said: “Having considered the report in detail, it is the Scottish Government’s view that UCG poses numerous and serious environmental risks and, on that basis, the Scottish Government cannot support this technology. Accordingly, UCG will have no place in Scotland’s energy mix at this time.

“In Prof Gemmell’s report he recommends it would be wise to consider an approach to UCG based upon a precautionary presumption against the technology, and that it would appear logical to progress toward a ban.”

The minister added: “I cannot predict what kind of clean energy technologies may be available in the decades to come, but what is certain is that this resource will still be there. As a result of today’s announcement, our energy strategy for Scotland will set out an energy mix for the future thatdoes not include UCG.”

Prof Gemmell’s report agreed that there was a “wealth of coal resource in Scotland, particularly in the Forth Estuary”. But it cast doubt on whether there was a robust enough regulatory framework.

It also reported that local residents had raised concerns about subsidence, earthquakes, air quality, waste and water issues, the length of jobs created and the impact on transport links.

The report concluded: “There is a persuasive case that pursuit of UCG is not the right choice.”

The Scottish Conservatives opposed the ban. Tory energy spokesman Alexander Burnett said: “It’s deeply disappointing that the Scottish Government is taking this stance – it’s yet another missed opportunity.

“The SNP has closed the door on shale, and now it’s doing the same for underground coal gasification. These technologies could create thousands of jobs, boost the economy and lower future energy bills.”

UCG differs from fracking in that it involves pumping oxygen and steam through a small borehole into the coal seam to produce a small and controlled combustion, which converts coal into gas. The hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and CO2 are then siphoned off through a second borehole.

Fracking sees the extraction of underground energy by using injecting high pressure water into the ground to free up trapped gas.

Scottish Labour environment spokeswoman Claudia Beamish said: “This is a welcome step – but it must be the first step to a ban on fracking in Scotland. The concerns that the SNP has used to justify a ban on underground coal gasification are the same concerns that motivated this Parliament to vote for a ban on fracking.”

Green MSP Mark Ruskell said he hoped the ruling indicated the “direction of travel” on fracking.

Mr Ruskell said: “It’s been a long battle and I congratulate the many communities, groups and individuals around Scotland who have stood resolutely against UCG. It has taken time for Scottish ministers to realise the devastating impact that this dangerous technology would have on the local environment, workers and our potential to develop low-­carbon industries.

“It’s essential that the relevant planning guidance is brought to Parliament as soon as possible. The minister’s intention is good but actions are what counts.”

Andrew Nunn, chief operating officer for Cluff Natural Resources, said Scotland would lose out as a result of yesterday’s decision.

Mr Nunn said: “Being an innovator and world leader in any particular field requires some amount of judged acceptance of risk and it is obviously disappointing that the Scottish Government has decided not to trust its own regulators and world class engineering and scientific resource base. to ensure that a UCG industry could be developed under the rigorous scrutiny of a fit for purpose regulatory regime.

“We have no doubt that UCG will be developed elsewhere in the world and The opportunity for Scotland to benefit from first mover advantage will have been lost. “ Over the last 18 months the company has focussed its strategy around our growing portfolio of conventional oil and gas opportunities and today’s announcement has no impact on our current or planned future activities.”