Written for The Ecologist, published 3rd April under the title 'Underground coal gasification' hell-fires threaten Tyneside and the North Sea
The dumping of colliery waste and power station fly ash, from Lynemouth in Northumberland all the way down to Seaham in County Durham, once despoiled the Tyne and Wear coastline and damaged the ecology of the North Sea. Now another mining technology, underground coal gasification (UCG), threatens new dangers to human health and the environment – with the full backing of the Government.
At the final climax of one of the great gritty dramas of British Cinema, Get Carter, the anti-hero chases the villain to a lonely beach location where coal waste is being dumped into the sea. That was the tip site for Black Hall Colliery in County Durham – and both the pit and the dumping equipment has long since gone.
Over the thirty years since dumping stopped the coastline has recovered, and the whole length of that coastline is now promoted as a recreational area. The beaches of the north-east coast of England, once a metaphor for the dirty industrialism of Britain's heavy industries – which Mike Hodges 1971 gangster film evoked – are clean.
Now there's a new threat to this coastline, and the coast of the Firth of Forth in Scotland, from the latest iteration of the coal mining industry; underground coal gasification (UCG).
However, you might not see it called that.
In a move similar to the PR-inspired renaming of Windscale to Sellafield (as part of the Thatcher Government's promotion of new nuclear plants), today you're as likely to see UCG referred to as "deep gas winning" – perhaps to avoid any similar reference the previous environmental disasters in its recent history.
For the last couple of years the environment movement has been busy with 'fracking' and its ecological woes. At the same time, quietly, and with no public discussion, the Government has been putting in place a system of licences and financial assistance to kick-start a UCG industry in Britain.
There's an awful lot of coal underground – potentially trillions of tonnes under the North Sea – which are out of reach of conventional deep mining techniques. The 'unconventional' techniques of UCG allow access to this coal by drilling boreholes, gasifying the coal in-situ underground, and then bringing a mixture of gases – called syngas – to the surface.
Syngas is made up primarily of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, methane, and a whole range of other (often toxic) hydrocarbons and inorganic compounds. While similar to the town gas produced in Britain from the early 1800s until the 1970s, which gave rise to some of the most problematic contaminated land sites in the country, syngas isn't suitable for supply via the gas mains of today. For that reason the gas would be burnt directly at the well head to produce heat and electricity, or it could be supplied to large industrial energy users.
Don't confuse this process with integrated gasification, or the more polluting synthetic gas plants – UCG is something wholly different. Most fundamentally, while similar chemical process use steel pressure vessels to contain the reaction, UCG is essentially carried out in the open environment, albeit deep underground. For that reason the toxic by-products of the process are able to move freely in the environment, back towards the surface, made buoyant by the heat liberated from the process.
Irrespective of the risks, due to the potential resource which might be harvested, UCG is an attractive technology for economic pundits. What has confounded their optimism is that while various companies and governments have tried to get UCG working for over eighty years, most have ended in failure.
There are two small plants, in Uzbekistan and South Africa, but thus far they have not transparently reported the impacts of their operations.
Trials in Britain during the 1950s, then the USA during the 1970s, then Europe during the 1990s, and most recently Australia during the 2000s, were abandoned – usually leaving behind a contaminated environment.
In Queensland the plant operators have been, or currently are in court facing prosecution for the pollution they have created. Linc Energy have also allegedly exposed workers to dangerous substances, and leaked documents claim irreversible damage to the environment.
Within the last few weeks it appears – following the discovery of high levels of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulphide (components of UCG syngas) – that the Linc Energy site may have polluted the ground with toxic gases over a wide area. The Queensland state government has declared a 'no dig' exclusion zone over 320 square kilometres of land to protect the public from the risk of exposure to the gas.
The return of UCG was ushered in under New Labour, and has been expanded by the Con-Dem government. From the end of the 1990s the Department of Trade and Industry had commissioned various reports on UCG, and its potential in the UK (note – in that last link, figure 2.5 on page 19 has a map of the 'best' areas for UCG development).
While there have been various abortive start-up companies formed in recent years, many of whom were issued UCG licences, today there are two leading players in the UK UCG industry:
Cluff Natural Resources, founded by Algy Cluff, Conservative Party supporter and former owner of The Spectator, is probably the most well financed – with the most advanced development project.
Cluff has a number of existing UCG licences granted by the Coal Authority, and has had new licences or license extensions granted this week. In February Cluff signed a memorandum of understanding with the oilfield services company Halliburton to develop their licences. And they recently had a new share issue to fund the environmental and planning consultants required to submit the development applications required for their project.
Cluff initially plans to develop a pilot plant in Fife, beneath the Firth of Forth – despite vocal local concerns. Although Scotland has a fracking moratorium, as I outlined in a previous Ecologist article this does not apply to UCG developments.
From public accountability perspective, I think Five Quarter are the more interesting of the two.
While Cluff are a traditional 'big money' company, cultivating Algy Cluff's connections to the City, Five Quarter have used their connections to get both grants and loan guarantees from the UK and European governments to fund their work.
The company also has strong connections to Newcastle University – which, given their science backgrounds, might make you believe that those involved 'should know better'.
For example, one of the company's directors, Robert Hull, is a recently appointed member of Newcastle University's Council – but perhaps more significantly he's a former European Commission mandarin. It may be that his experience is paying off for the company. In 2012 the Department for Business put Five Quarter forward for an EU regional growth fund award – for which they received £15 million in 2013.
That's not the most significant issue of finance, however.
Under the Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Act 2012 the Government is going to issue up to £40 billion in loan guarantees for 'significant infrastructure projects'. A large wad of that 'theoretical' cash is supporting the construction of a new nuclear plant at Hinckley Point, but a proportion is going to other projects around Britain.
Certain projects under this scheme have 'pre-qualified'. For example, Ineos, wannabe developer of shale gas in Scotland, is getting a loan guarantee to build an ethane importation facility. And just above Ineos on that list of the 'pre-qualified' projects you'll find –
"Five-Quarter Energy plant to process unconventional gas extracted from below the North Sea to create low-cost energy for British manufacturing and new jobs in the north-east of England"
The actual figure for the guarantee has not been disclosed.
Without any debate, the public are guaranteeing Five Quarter's loans to build its pilot plant – which they had hoped to begin building last year. Given that the main political parties are all promising, at varying levels, to continue austerity economics after next election, the 'pork barrel' politics of guaranteeing such risky loans will offend many.
In climate campaign circles there is a growing concern about "frackademics" – academics who assist the work of energy companies to aid fossil fuel extraction.
Another of Five Quarter's directors is Paul Younger. He was a professor at Newcastle University who moved to Glasgow University in 2012 – and latterly opposed their decision to divest the University's funds from fossil fuel investments.
He was also on the Scottish Government's panel looking at the safety of shale gas in 2014, he's a non-executive director of Algy Cluff's geothermal company, and most recently stated that the SNP "fabricated" the reasons to support a ban on fracking. He also co-authored a recent paper critical of the Government's 'traffic light' system – recommended by the Royal Society in their 2012 report – to control the earthquakes caused by fracking.
The other former Newcastle academic on Five Quarter's board is Dermot Roddy. Before joining Newcastle University as a professor of energy he ran the (recently closed) Petroplus refinery on Teeside. When asked about 'other environmental impacts' during an interview, the only thing he talked about was the need for a 'carbon management plan' – he said nothing about UCG's challenging history of environmental contamination.
The other director of note is Mark Oddy. He's the energy director of one of Five Quarter's significant shareholders, the Buccleuch Group – the finance and property company chaired by the Duke of Buccleuch (who is also the UK’s largest private landowner, with interests in fracking in Scotland).
The chairman and CEO of Five Quarter is Harry Bradbury, a former high-flying professor of geology at Yale University who went on to become a consultant for companies such as Booz Allen Hamilton and AT Kearney.
"The wording of this petition is misinformed and scientifically inaccurate. It is scientific nonsense, high on emotion and absent of facts... It is alarmist. The petition makes unsubstantiated claims which have no bearing on the objectives or programme for Five-Quarter."
Bradbury may have been justifiably nervous at the time. Reportedly Five Quarter is negotiating with investors at the moment to secure the cash to start their project.
However, you cannot objectively look at the history of UCG around the world, in particular the last decade in Australia, and believe that the process presents negligible hazards. The very fact that the chemical reaction takes place unconfined, within the natural environment, creates an inherent risk of serious environmental pollution.
I should note, Cluff HAS stated their their project in the Firth of Forth poses a "negligible risk".
Which leads me to pose the question, which is more hazardous?: the UCG process itself; or highly qualified individuals who should know about these inherent risks, and yet chose to ignore them in public, and rail against those who sough to raise them as a point of public debate.
The text of the 38 Degrees petition concludes, "We don't want our coastlines to die". That is a highly apposite observation in relation to this region's coastline.
A 1979 investigation of the impacts of waste disposal along the north east coast – carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) – found the dumping of spoil and ash significantly damaged the local ecology of the North Sea. Additionally, much of that dumping took place unlawfully, over an area three times greater than had originally been permitted by the Government.
The truth behind the north east's once dirty beaches? It wasn't just harming the environment and local amenity – those in power were allowing it to do so outside of the law.
Today the Government is once more promoting an energy technology involving coal extraction which, if the results in the USA and Australia are a guide, risks contaminating the ecosystems of the North Sea once more. Yes, Five Quarter intend to bury the carbon. The question is, what will be the fate of all the other toxins that their process will generate?
And what is equally maddening is that the public are now, and as likely as not, will continue to pay for this to happen – and quite possibly to clean up mess afterwards. We have paid for Five Quarter's grants through taxes. If, or given past experience, when Five Quarter's test project goes wrong, a company with a small capitalisation is highly likely to liquidate itself. That being the case, the creditors will come calling for their money to the guarantor of Five Quarter's loans – the UK Treasury.
A review of the infrastructure loans guarantee scheme was carried out for Parliament by the National Audit Office. Their recent report concluded that the Treasury does not consider the overall value for money of projects, and went on to state –
We do not have full confidence in the reliability or completeness of market benchmarks used to measure actual risks to taxpayers.
In reality though, what we're talking about with UCG is some more visceral than mere financial risk
'Extreme energy' isn't just about excess pollution compared to our past energy sources. Extreme energy requires extreme, high risk finance; and perhaps more importantly a political and regulatory process which turns a blind eye to those risks – as in the case of the historic dumping along the north east coast. Like fracking, UCG is an ecocidal project; one which has clear potential for environmentally damaging outcomes, and yet those who should know better – for reasons of political, professional of financial expediency – recklessly choose to play-down or ignore those hazards.