Published in 'The Ecologist', 20th May 2014, under the title, "Coal gas company warns – stop campaigning or we will sue"
SLAPP – a "strategic lawsuit against public participation". SLAPPing is a tactic often used in the USA, where companies intent on environmental destruction pre-emptively sue leading local campaigners in order to quash the local opposition. That tactic raised its head in Britain last week in relation to a technology that makes "fracking" look reasonable.
Quietly, and with Government support, underground coal gasification (UCG) has been on the agenda for a while. 20-odd licences have been issued around the coast of Britain, and there's an application for a site in Warwickshire.
This week Cluff Natural Resources will be having their shareholder meeting in London – with protesters in attendance – and they will undoubtedly try and "accentuate the positive" about the concept in order to make investors part with their cash. For a while UCG has seemed a bit of a joke – so extreme in fact, who in their right mind would try and do it here?
Last week the 'cold war' battle over UCG got hotter when lawyers for one of the companies – Five Quarter Energy Holdings – sent a legal threat to Scottish campaigner Mel Kelly. What unsettlingly fiendish action had she done in order to receive such threats? She wrote a short report about the politically-backed project for UCG and sent it to politicians in Scotland. The 'cease and desist' letter their lawyers sent was fairly silly, but the part that made me laugh out loud was the following paragraph –
Five-Quarter denies that UCG activities are as dangerous as you imply. The UCG industry, like all natural resource related industries, faces risks and challenges. There have been hundreds of trials of UCG worldwide which have been completed successfully, without any safety concerns.
As far as I'm concerned that statement is either willingly misleading, or by their ignorance of the facts they have demonstrated that they are not "fit and proper persons" to operate such a site. We only have to look at the long, polluted history of this process to see why.
Underground coal gasification – or "setting fire to coal seams underground" (as my son, with a giggle, calls it) – involves drilling two holes into a coal seam. Oxygen-enriched air is pumped down one of the holes. The coal burns and when it gets hot enough, starved of sufficient oxygen for complete oxidation, produces a stream of flammable gases called 'syngas' – mainly a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and some methane and volatile organic compounds. Unfortunately, just like old town gas works, it also creates lots of noxious pollutants too.
The idea is well over a hundred years old but, contrary to the lawyers letter, there have NOT been "hundreds" of trials worldwide. There have been a few, and they've mostly gone wrong.
The idea first took off in Soviet Russia in the 1930s. In Britain trails took place at two sites in the 1950s, but were closed after a Parliamentary debate in 1955 when a local MP asked, "is my honourable Friend aware that these underground gasification experiments are causing a very nasty smell round Kidderminster?".
Then the idea resurfaced in the USA after the 1970s oil crisis. Trials took place at Hoe Creek, Hanna and Rawlins in Wyoming. At Hoe Creek, which was quite shallow, the ground caved in and smoke poured out. At Hanna they carried on gasification trials for a number of years – before declaring it a 'superfund site' in order that the Federal Government could provide the money to pay for the decontamination of the groundwater in the area. Rawlins never really got going.
Next the idea jumped across to Europe, where European Commission-funded trials took place. During the 1980s the project at Thulin, in Belgium, didn't really take off. In 1997 the project at El Tremedal in Spain did take off – certainly after an underground explosion shot a geyser of coal tar up the production pipe and over the site.
UCG seemed dead, but like a bad penny it next turned up in Queensland, Australia. In the early 2000s three companies – Cougar Energy at Kingaroy, Linc Energy at Chincilla and Carbon Energy at Blackwood Creek – set up a joint venture with the state government to carry out further trails. Better still, for the public at least, the Queensland Government established a scientific committee to monitor the sites.
The scientific committee's report in 2011 presented a catalogue of errors – insufficient baseline studies, poor monitoring, pollution of the soil surrounding one of the sites, and one site had carcinogenic solvents in the local groundwater. Certainly enough to warrant closer attention by regulators.
The committee's 2013 report was worse. Quite apart from continuing pollution issues, they were concerned that the operators did not have the capability to safely decommission the sites, and recommended that this be done before the trials proceeded further.
Then in 2013 Cougar Energy was prosecuted and fined A$75,000 for polluting the local groundwater with benzene and toluene. A few weeks ago Linc Energy had charges brought against them for polluting the groundwater in a similar manner – which they are currently contesting. In the mean time the locals are concerned because information isn't being put into the public domain about what really happened at the sites.
Both Cougar and Linc and Carbon Energy have now shut down; but they're not finished yet!
Cougar is trawling their services around Asia, while Linc has tried its hand in southern Africa, and once again has proposed trials back in Wyoming – against the wishes of local campaign groups there. But in Wyoming, Linc have come up with a revolutionary way to prevent pollution. They've asked the local regulator to reclassify the groundwater around the site so that if they have leaks, it won't necessarily be considered "pollution".
In the mean time Linc has licensed its technology to another pilot plant, at Majuba in South Africa. That started work in 2007, and they're pumping groundwater from around the test site to stop it being polluted. However, there appears to be no monitoring information, and there have been complaints that Linc are using intellectual property rights to prevent the disclosure of information about operations on the site. Linc also have interests at the world's longest running site at Angren in Uzbekistan. That's been operational since 1961, but again, no monitoring of the emissions or groundwater appears to exist.
Currently Cluff Natural Resources are trying to peddle their wares to Fife Council – where they have two licences underneath the Firth of Forth. Cluff also own licences off the Wirral, where they are making noises, and perhaps worst of all, under one of Wales' most valuable wildlife sites – the Loughor Estuary, near Swansea. They're even making noises up the coast from Sellafield!
The big issue here is that all these "trials" involve gasifying a few hundred tonnes to a few thousand tonnes of coal here and there each year. To be a commercially viable technology in an energy-hungry country like Britain, they would have to gasify a few thousand tonnes of coal EVERY DAY. If these small trials cause pollution, what happens when they scale that up by a factor of three to five hundred in order to become commercially viable. But, with our fracking-mad Government, it's only a short step to UCG "carbon-geddon".
Five Quarter says that Mel Kelly's report is spreading untrue and erroneous information which damages their business. Arguably she doesn't need to do that – the historic reputation of UCG process speaks for itself! And sending threatening letters to local campaigners, making malicious claims which are demonstrably false, doesn't wash that record clean. It's a dangerous process, with no safe record of operation on even a commercial scale... quite simply, if you think fracking is bad, UCG is worse!
The problem is that, as with fracking, the issue here isn't environmental safety, or energy production. It's about companies extracting cash from gullible governments and ignorant investors in order to carry on their outrageous pipe dreams. And when it all goes wrong, all those involved in the project get paid – it's the local environment, and the people, who ultimately pay the price for their acquisitiveness.