Source: Channel 4 News
URL: http://www.channel4.com/news/is-the-future-of-british-coal-burning-it-underground
Date: 04/01/2012
Event: The future of British coal - burning it underground
Attribution: Channel 4 News

  • Rohan Courtney: Chairman, Clean Coal UK
  • Professor Dieter Helm: Professor of Energy Policy at Oxford University
  • Professsor Michael JacobsVisiting Professor at Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change
  • Shaun Lavis: Geologist
  • Sarah Smith: Business correspondent, Channel 4 News
  • Jon Snow: Presenter, Channel 4 News
  • Professor Paul Younger: Director, Newcastle University Institute for Research on Sustainability 

Jon SnowIt could provide power for decades, but until now it's been too deep, too expensive to exploit. Billions of tons of coal still lie far beneath Britain, beyond the reach of conventional mining. But now new technology means power can be produced cheaply by burning it in situ, deep underground. Our business correspondent Sarah Smith has been to Swansea Bay, where the government has granted one of a number of licences to develop the technology. But conservationists warn it could catastrophically undermine efforts to increase green energy sources. 

Sarah Smith: The bright lights of Swansea by night. It takes about 230 megawatts of electricity to keep the lights on in a city this size. There is enough coal beneath Swansea Bay to keep them on for decades. Until now, it's not been possible to get at it. 

Underground coal gasification has the potential to transform the energy industry, especially in places like this, where most of the old coal mines have long since shut down. There is still plenty of coal underneath the ground - it's just been too expensive, until now, to try and get it out. This new technology could completely change that.

First you sink a borehole down to the coal seam, about 500 metres underground. New directional drilling technology makes it easy to create another one that tracks along the coal seam. Pump in oxygen and firelighters to start a burn. And as the coal combusts, it generates carbon monoxide, methane and hydrogen - or syngas - which is extracted through the borehole. A power generation plant on the surface turns the syngas into electricity. 

Coal has always been king in South Wales, even if most of the pits, like Deep Duffryn Colliery, have long since shut down. There is still plenty of coal underground, but traditional mining methods can't reach it. Underground coal gasification is much cheaper than old-fashioned extraction, and men don't have to work underground in dirty and dangerous conditions. 

Rohan Courtney: It's very cheap, and it's a cheap form of energy. It's in abundance, it is security of supply [sic]. We own the coal in this country, not Brussels, not America, not Russia. We own it. And it's our supply, and we have sufficient supplies of coal for underground coal gasification to provide energy for the whole of the UK, if that's what we want to do, for hundreds of years. 

Sarah Smith: Clean Coal's gasification geologist took me to see where their first project will start work in a few months' time. He thinks there may be a billion tons of coal under the water in Swansea Bay.

Shaun Lavis: What we try to access is coal that's deemed unmineable, usually because it's too deep, so we're not really in competition with mines. What we're looking for, typically, are coal seams that are unmineable, because they are offshore or they are too deep.

Sarah Smith: The government has quietly granted UCG licences all over the country. Swansea is one of a number of them. Another's been issued on the Thames Estuary, with another ten up the east coast of England. There are four offshore in Scotland, one in Cumbria and one in Liverpool Bay. That brings the total around the United Kingdom, so far, to eighteen. 

Environmentalists have always hoped that new advances in wind power, in wave and in solar would supply our future energy needs. But what's happening here is that new technological advances are also allowing people to extract and exploit more fossil fuels. 

UCG is cleaner than the coal of the past. But it will still produce carbon emissions. Clean Coal Limited say they intend to capture and store that CO2, but admit the technology is far from perfect. So environmentalists worry that because UCG is cheaper than renewables, it will displace greener fuels. 

Dieter Helm: The Earth's crust is riddled with fossil fuels. And it's not that we haven't got enough of them - we've got far too many of them. And this really is the climate change concern - what are we going to do if people burn all this stuff, given that it's going to be relatively cheap, compared with some of the alternative low-carbon technologies?

Sarah Smith: UCG is already in operation in Australia, where it's suffered a major setback. Protests about local pollution forced Cougar Energy to shut down a plant in Queensland in 2009, when benzene was found in the groundwater. But the company deny that had anything to do with them.

Coal is undoubtedly dirty and destructive. But it's also very cheap, and UCG could make it even cheaper. Around the world, there may be as much as five trillion tons of coal that can't be reached by traditional mining. Gasification might make it accessible, but it could also tie us to fossil fuels far into the future. Sarah Smith, Channel 4 News, Swansea.

Jon Snow: So, is burning coal underground the future? Indeed, is there a future at all, for fossil fuels? Joining us now are Professor Michael Jacobs, from the LSE's Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, and joining us from Gateshead, Professor Paul Younger, Director of Newcastle University Institute of Research on Sustainability. Now, I mean, one thing's pretty clear, Michael Jacobs, and that is that the direction of travel is still fossil fuels. Everybody's using them, everybody's simply trying to find cleaner ways to use them. But that's the future.

Michael Jacobs: Well, it isn't the future, and that's why I have got, and many people have grave concerns about this technology of underground gasification. The world, as the report said, has plenty of fossil fuels, hundreds of years' worth. If all of them were burnt, we would commit ourselves to catastrophic climate change, temperature rises of five degrees, six degrees or more, which is more than the temperature difference between the Ice Age and the present day. It would make the world, more or less, uninhabitable, as we know it. So if we burn all that coal, we would not survive in the way that we know now. We have to leave it in the ground. So any technology which makes coal cheaper and easier to use takes us in the wrong direction. Coal is not the future.

Jon Snow: Well now, that's the challenge you have to answer, Professor Younger.

Paul Younger: Well, it seems to me the national debate about energy's, sort of, devolved into a Punch & Judy show, which puts the renewables on one side and fossil fuels on the other, and I mean, the reality is we going to need both. And we're going to need imaginative ways of getting fossil fuel use in a responsible way, re-injecting all of the CO2 arising, so that we can actually use the fossil fuels to bridge our way to a future renewably-powered society. Because we're a long way from that, yet.

Jon Snow: Well, do you include this technology in that umbrella? 

Paul Younger: Absolutely. I mean, the work that we've been doing for the past five or six years is precisely about the fact that underground coal gasification can make carbon capture and storage not only economic but up to 2000 times easier to do, in terms of the energy needed to do it - 

Jon Snow: But if man is adding to CO2 emissions and global warming, as the majority of scientists argue, you're doing the same.

Paul Younger: No. You haven't listened to what I just said. We've been working on ways to use underground coal gasification precisely to -

Jon Snow: Yeah. But - to use it at all - 

Paul Younger: - do carbon capture and storage.

Jon Snow: But to use it at all - 

Paul Younger: How? If you're using the energy from the coal, without putting the CO2 in the atmosphere, what you're doing is buying us some time to get renewables up to scratch. I mean, right now they're not up to scratch.

Jon Snow: He's right, isn't he.

Michael Jacobs: There are two problems with this argument. The first is if you inject the coal - the carbon dioxide into the place where the coal has come from, you've only got room for about 30% of it. So you would still have coal being used with 70% of its emissions going out into the atmosphere, so that still makes it more polluting than gas. But much more importantly than that -

Jon Snow: Well, let's pause there and let him answer that -

Michael Jacobs: Can I - 

Jon Snow: No, let's hear your answer - 

Paul Younger: I mean, my background is in hydro-geomechanics, and I've done a lot of the modelling on this. You haven't just got the void space from the coal that you've removed, to play with, but also the relaxed zone in the immediately overlying stratum. You know how this works from long-wall coal mining. So we've a very long tradition, 100 years in this country, of safely managing underground coal operations with long-wall, and we know from the modelling of those that we can get pretty much all of the CO2 back into the seam, and the porosity would access in the overlying strata. 

Jon Snow: Well, that does sound pretty magical.

Michael Jacobs: The point is that this technology won't primarily be used in the UK. In the UK - 

Jon Snow: Well, let's just deal with it in the UK, because that's where the technology licences have been granted immediately.

Michael Jacobs: Yes, but the reason the companies are interested in doing this here, is to develop a technology which can then be used elsewhere in the world. They're eyeing up the vast coal reserves in China, India and so on, and we know in those places - 

Jon Snow: The issue, surely, is the principle. Are you going to support it in this country?

Michael Jacobs: The issue is, are we creating - are we making it easier and cheaper for coal to be used around the world, without carbon capture and storage - let's not be - let's not be starry-eyed about this, there won't be carbon capture and storage in most of the places that this technology will be used. Companies are trying to invest in this because of its use overseas. That is going to be the problem. We can't use this coal. We have to leave it in the ground.

Jon Snow: Surely the central problem, Professor Younger, is that you are producing something out of coal, which is cheaper and more polluting than green energy?

Paul Younger: Well, I mean, one of the issues about underground coal gasification is that one of the dumbest things you can do with it, actually, is to burn it to produce electricity. I mean, the important use of it is the precursor for all of the plastics and other things that modern society relies on. And that's what we're more interested in. And producing zero emission at point of use fuels such as hydrogen for our electric vehicles - fuel-cell powered cars. That's a far smarter thing to do with it, and if you couple all of that to carbon capture and storage, I don't see why the UK wouldn't want to be in the global vanguard of this industry, instead of the usual business of the last few decades, of bringing up the rear behind the likes of China and India. I mean, we have the technology, we can do it safely and cleanly, and develop technology that others can use around the world, sure. But if we've developed it to the highest standards, we've, you know, we've set the bar for how this can be done. And - 

Jon Snow: Okay - 

Paul Younger: - this is a big opportunity here, as well as a smart way of bridging to renewable energy in the future.

Jon Snow: Professor Younger and Professor Jacobs, thank you both very much.

Paul Younger: Thank you.