LONDON Oct 1 Plans to burn Britain's large
reserves of coal to produce gas for power plants may wait for
years because of concerns about climate change and a public
perception that the technology is similar to fracking.
Cluff Resources, one of the companies trying to
develop underground coal gasification in Britain, said the
technology is not likely to be deployed for at least another
five years, while government officials are tied up with the
public opposition to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for
"The opposition to fracking has caught the government and
companies drilling for shale gas by surprise, and it is taking
up a lot of their executive time. Accordingly, we need to
explain the absolute difference between fracking and the
offshore coal gasification technology," the company's chairman,
Algy Cluff, said in an interview.
In common with fracking, underground coal gasification
entails the injection of a mixture of compounds to yield a gas
that can be used in power generation. Both techniques create
toxic byproducts that must be removed from the processing site
and made safe.
Coal-to-gas projects involve boring mostly into thin,
unmineable coal seams deep offshore. A mixture of air, oxygen
and steam is injected underground to combust subsea coal
By contrast, fracking unlocks natural gas through
high-pressure injection of chemicals, sand and water at
Cluff, who helped pioneer the development of Britain's
offshore oil and gas industry in the 1970s, said underground
coal gasification sites could use much of the pipeline
infrastructure already in place to transport the gas and would
be much less disruptive to rural communities than fracking for
Cluff and at least four other companies - Clean Coal
Limited, Five-Quarter Energy, Riverside Energy and Europa Oil &
Gas Limited - have been issued with 21 licenses for coal
But additional permits will be needed from a range of
government agencies before drilling and production can start.
"A SECOND NORTH SEA"
The process was first adopted on a wide scale by the Soviet
Union during the 1930s, but after the Second World War the
technology failed to advance beyond the experimental stage
because of cheap oil and gas prices.
Higher gas prices and technological improvements have
rekindled interest in underground coal gasification in recent
years. Four projects are currently operating in Australia,
China, South Africa and Uzbekistan.
Britain produces around half of its natural gas from the
North Sea, and that figure is likely to fall to around 25
percent by 2030, according to government estimates, increasing
its dependence on imports from Norway and Qatar.
"We are potentially talking about a second North Sea here
(in terms of gas production from coal). It's far too big an
opportunity for government and energy majors to ignore," Cluff
In this technology, the coal from deep seams is burned, and
the resulting gases are processed. Carbon dioxide and toxic
byproducts are separated from gas that is used to generate power
and to manufacture industrial chemicals.
The CO2 could be pumped back into the subsea cavities and
nearby depleted oil and gas wells, Cluff said.
Burning coal underground and using the gas for power
generation produce twice the carbon per megawatt-hour of a
conventional gas-fired power plant.
Britain's government has already said it will allow
underground coal gasification only if the process uses carbon
capture and storage, a technology that has struggled to attract
funding because of high costs and technical
Not including the expense of carbon capture and carbon
permits, the cost of coal gasification and the resulting power
generation would amount to around 52 euros per megawatt-hour (44
pounds/MWh), according to a recent EC-funded report, compared
with an estimated 48 euros per MWh from conventional gas power
generation in Britain.
Meanwhile, local opposition is growing in coastal areas of
eastern and northern England, Wales and Scotland near the
proposed coal gasification projects.
Frack Off, the pressure group that coordinated protests this
summer against exploratory drilling for shale oil in Balcombe,
southern England, has said setting fire to coal underground
would be "insane".
"Previous small-scale tests have been dogged by
contamination of groundwater with toxic and carcinogenic coal
tars, explosions and other mishaps. On an industrial scale it
would rival the Canadian tar sands for scale and environmental
impact, producing vast streams of toxic waste," the group said.
Critics say the technology would be more carbon intensive
even than traditional coal mining.
But Cluff and other operators said Britain's tough
regulations, use of deep offshore coal seams, carbon capture,
good management and regular monitoring would mean that they
could gasify coal without polluting air, water or soil.