from Sunday Herald, 22 February 2015
Nearly 30 campaign and environmental groups have this weekend written to the Energy Minister, Fergus Ewing MSP, asking for a halt to all underground coal gasification (UCG) developments because of the health and environmental risks. It is a “grave concern” that the technology has been omitted from the moratorium, they say.
Two private companies have advanced plans to gasify the coal that underlies large parts of the Firth of Forth and the Solway Firth. Between them they have five exploratory licences for the seabed off Kincardine, Musselburgh, Largo Bay, and in the middle of the two firths, plus an application pending for an area off Kirkcaldy.
One company, Cluff Natural Resources, founded by the multi-millionaire oil tycoon, Algy Cluff, has been in talks with Fife and Falkirk council officials in recent weeks and is intending to make planning applications for a Kincardine scheme this year. The other, Five Quarter, is based in Newcastle and backed by an eight per cent investment from the UK’s largest private landowner, the Duke of Buccleuch.
Ewing announced a temporary moratorium on onshore fracking and coalbed methane developments on 28 January. But he specifically excluded offshore UCG from the ban, despite having powers to include it.
The joint letter to Ewing has been signed by groups in Fife, North Berwick, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Canonbie and elsewhere. It has been backed by the trade union, Unison, Friends of the Earth groups and two professors from the University of Stirling, Andrew Watterson and Rory O’Neill.
“Many of the environmental and public health impacts of underground coal gasification are understood to be very similar to those of shale gas and coalbed methane extraction,” the letter says.
“We note that the means of imposing a moratorium on unconventional oil and gas developments – ensuring that no planning permissions or environmental permits are granted for these developments – could equally be applied to underground coal gasification.”
The letter also asks for community representatives to be included in initial discussions about the consultation and investigations promised during the moratorium. “It is vital that communities - particularly those directly affected by the industry – are involved at this pre-consultation phase,” it says.
One of the signatories was an action group called Our Forth, Portobello in Edinburgh. “The prospect of this unproven and dangerous industry being forced upon Edinburgh's seaside and the East Lothian and Fife coastlines is terrifying to us,” said the group’s Juliana Muir.
“We know from other areas of the world that UCG has led to numerous public health and environmental problems. It is vital that we are protected and UCG is included in the moratorium as a matter of urgency.”
Audrey Egan, the founder of the campaign group, Frack Off Fife, argued that the Firth of Forth should not be used to test unsafe and unnecessary technologies. “Its multi-marine species habitat will be under threat from polluted water, as will the livelihoods surrounding the river that rely on it,” she said.
The call for UCG to be included in the government’s moratorium was backed by the Labour MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, Claire Baker. “The Scottish Government has the powers to stop UCG taking place yet so far has refused to do so,” she told the Sunday Herald.
“Meanwhile large companies are exploiting this loophole and pressing ahead whilst people throughout Scotland remain powerless to resist. That is why a local referendum is vital.”
Experts say that the science of exploiting UCG is less understood than that of other forms of unconventional gas. “The risks with UCG are different from other unconventionals as different techniques are required,” said Robert Gatliff, energy director at the British Geological Survey.
Oxygen and steam were injected to recover gases like carbon monoxide and methane released by burning coal, he pointed out. Climate pollution from burning the coal was “considered much worse than burning methane.”
According to Mary Church, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, the climate impact of UCG was unacceptable. “It makes no sense for a country with ambitious climate targets and the means to achieve them with renewables to flirt with such a risky form of energy production,” she said.
The Scottish Government reiterated that it was taking a “careful, considered and evidence-based approach” to unconventional gas. “Many of the relevant powers relating to UCG remain with Westminster and the licensing regime is not being devolved,” said a spokesman.
“We will work with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and all relevant regulators to ensure we have the appropriate controls and regulations to protect the environment.”
Cluff Natural Resources declined to comment. In November it said there was an estimated 335 million tonnes of coal under the 3,687 hectares of seabed it is exploring off Kincardine.
In a presentation to Fife Council earlier this month, the company suggested it would make a “scoping submission” to the council in April followed by a planning application in November for a UCG demonstrator plant in the Forth off Kincardine. There would be continued engagement with regulators, councillors and the public, it said.
The company’s website argues that UCG will be safer and cleaner than the mining and burning of coal on land. “A well regulated indigenous UCG project would have significant environmental benefits when compared to conventional coal fired power generation,” it says.
“As the United Kingdom is well placed within Europe having large resources of indigenous coal still remaining both onshore and offshore in the North Sea, these resources have the potential to provide security of future energy supplies long after North Sea oil and gas are exhausted.”
Five Quarter's chief executive, Dr Harry Bradbury, has previously argued that the UK needed gas as well as renewables. He accused environmental campaigners of being against fossil fuels "which translates to being anti-manufacturing and anti-employment".