Lesley Riddoch: Local decisions on UCG & fracking

BURNING coal underground to produce gas might sound risky, but could be a bonanza for local councils, says Lesley Riddoch.

This message at a Grangemouth protest is clear enough, but should it apply to gasification too? Picture: Michael Gillen
This message at a Grangemouth protest is clear enough, but should it apply to gasification too? Picture: Michael Gillen
This message at a Grangemouth protest is clear enough, but should it apply to gasification too? Picture: Michael Gillen

IT SHOULD be good news for the Scottish economy. A discovery larger than the old Forties field, more valuable than the new Clair field west of Shetland – and more accessible than both.

But somehow it isn’t good news – because the discovery involves underground coal gasification (UCG) not “simple” oil extraction, the proposed new field is under the Forth Estuary, not in the remote North Sea, and because UCG, like oil, prolongs dependence on fossil fuels instead of speeding transition to renewables. So Green Scots should reject it? Maybe – but maybe alternative views should be given serious airtime first.

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This weekend, as anti-fracking groups demanded the Scottish Government extend its unconventional gas moratorium to include UCG, I chaired a public information meeting organised by Greener Kirkcaldy and addressed by Prof Stuart Haszeldine – the professor of carbon capture and storage at Edinburgh University. Any mistakes in my version of his thoughts are entirely mine.

Prof Haszeldine explained that fracking and gasification are different processes. Fracking involves pumping water down a borehole at high pressure to fracture rock and extract oil. UCG injects air through a pipeline, ignites coal and sucks gases from that controlled combustion.

It doesn’t sound much better. How can setting fire to coal underground possibly be safe? The technique hasn’t been tried underwater in the UK, but elsewhere, the pressure of surrounding rocks seals off cracks if the drilling is deep enough. Combustion stops in the absence of oxygen and, if regulated properly, everything should be safe. Not absolutely safe – so a pilot UCG operation would be required. But as safe as other processes, like extracting oil from the North Sea.

Furthermore, gases from Forth coal could be pipelined a few kilometres to Grangemouth for use in the petrochemical industry, unlike remote reserves of oil which are destined for the atmosphere via distant power stations.

According to Prof Haszeldine; “The smart use of UCG is not to burn it, but to use that treasure trove of concentrated hydrocarbon as a feedstock for plastic, paint, fertiliser and pharmaceutical production. That keeps the carbon locked up, and makes the products tens or hundreds of times more valuable than simply burning [UCG].”

And that helps to safeguard local jobs. Too good to be true? Can the public be sure UCG won’t end up in power stations? Maybe not. But gas power stations are specified to burn methane, not UCG’s combination of gases and if UCG isn’t available locally, Ineos will have to keep importing it from Russia and elsewhere.

That’s one account of science bit. The human bit is more contentious.

Ineos chairman Jim Ratcliffe hasn’t exactly endeared himself to Scots by holding the country to ransom in 2013 and threatening to close Grangemouth unless workers agreed to lay-offs and changes to terms and conditions. Equally Cluff Natural Resources (CNR) who want to build the UK’s first offshore UCG plant at Largo Bay, are colourful characters. According to Friends of the Earth, Scotland, “Cluff’s choice of controversy-dogged Halliburton as business partners should set alarm bells ringing. The energy giant has been linked with numerous environmental incidents and spills including the disastrous Deepwater Horizon, and [has got] fracking fluids excluded from safe water drinking legislation in the USA.”

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Cluff’s chief operating officer, Andrew Nunn, also has a rather provocative style. He said recently, “Typically, the ill-informed opponents of UCG choose to focus on a small number of negative outcomes during developmental phases rather than opportunities that a well-designed and operated UCG project could bring to the people of Scotland [through] more competitive local industry, new employment opportunities, local tax revenue and energy security. These increasingly extreme groups oppose practically all forms of energy development in Scotland … have no democratic legitimacy and should not be allowed to dictate policy. The misleading and increasingly inflammatory language they use is deliberately designed to instil an unwarranted sense of fear and unease in communities for their own political ends.”

Most locals will simply not recognise the relatively affable Friends of the Earth organisation in this slightly hysterical description and will feel inclined to block the whole risky-sounding venture.

Sensing the local mood, the local council will probably block any planning application, knowing its decision will probably be overturned on appeal. Nicola Sturgeon will then be blamed for letting a company ride roughshod over a local community – even though they may privately support the bid. Is this the best we can do?

Prof Haszeldine has proposed a different scenario. Since the Smith Commission has recommended that leases and eventually licences for unconventional gas should be transferred from Westminster to Scotland, canny local negotiators could extract a huge community benefit for permitting a test well and subsequent UCG production.

Ineos recently offered 4 per cent of pre-tax turnover to the communities around Grangemouth for shale gas exploration – an £11bn windfall for local councils over the probable 50 year lifespan of the UCG plant. If CNR was persuaded to follow suit as the price for permissions, a similar sum could be extracted.

What, though, if gas from coal found its way into power stations not chemical production?

Professor Haszeldine observes that Scotland still needs some form of base-load back-up to offset intermittent renewable energy until energy storage and/or marine energy is fully developed. Currently, on calm days, Scotland imports nuclear energy from France and coal-fired energy from England. Gas creates far less carbon than coal and regulations could require carbon capture and storage (CCS) to be fitted on all gas power plants. So, he argues, better to have “clean” gas with mandatory CCS than more coal and nuclear energy imports. Better for Holyrood with its more cautious approach to control the whole regulatory and licensing process of unconventional gas than leave parts of it with Westminster. And best if local communities are reborn with a share of profits from a strictly regulated UCG plant beneath the Forth whose supplies are destined for manufacturing not energy production.

Of course, there may be too much risk in all this for locals and too many years of fossil fuel-based dependency for Greens. Or the pragmatic professor could have a point.

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How do communities get more straight-talking before the vital decision is made?