We wrote about Underground Coal Gassification (UCG) a while ago, but it’s back in the news again, this time with a shiny new company behind it, Clean Coal Ltd. Now, we’ve heard governments, mining companies and power companies say “clean coal” instead of “coal” to make us believe that it’s different just because they’ve changed the name, but surely calling your company “clean coal” verges on the ridiculous.
But as with calling coal “clean coal”, Clean Coal Ltd is an illusion – it’s nothing more than using greenwash to capitalise and cash in on the climate crisis. But why should we worry about this? Surely if its greenwash, we should ignore it like we do the deceitful rhetoric coming out of power station bosses, etc. The problem is that Clean Coal Ltd has been awarded licences by the UK Coal Authority to trial UCG at five sites around the UK (one of which is in the Solway Forth, and another, needless to say, plans to burn coal within 500m off the shore of the north Norfolk area of outstanding natural beauty).
Preparation work on these trial sites could be finished within two years and the company says the first commercial scheme could be in operation by 2014. The combined coal reserves for the five trial sites alone are apparently enough to supply Britain with coal for more than a decade – some 600 million tonnes at current consumption .
Trials in Australia suggest that the technology involved in injecting oxygen and firefighter into a coal seam, burning in underground, and extracting the gases that come out (methane, CO2 and hydrogen) is ready to be used. Burning the methane that’s produced instead of the coal means less CO2 emissions from the gas-fired power stations. So whats the catch? As ever, carbon capture and storage. Yes, Clean Coal Ltd, just like ScottishPower and Scottish Coal, whenever they say “clean coal” rely on making us believe in carbon capture technology by saying it so many times that they magic it into existence.
As well as producing methane, UCG also produces a lot of CO2, and of course when the methane is burnt in gas power stations, its turned back into CO2. How much less CO2 we’re talking about compared to conventional coal-fired power stations once you add up the CO2 isn’t clear, but not likely to be much less. Further, Clean Coal Ltd reckon that only 30% of the CO2 generated through the process could be injected back into the combusted coal seam. What are they going to do with the other 70%? Carbon Capture and Storage! But that doesn’t exist and won’t for ten, twenty, thirty years? So basically we’re back to pouring it into the atmosphere. Clean Coal my arse.
Worse still, Underground Coal Gassification makes around 5 trillion tonnes of currently unexploitable coal reserves deep in the Earth (five times the reserves currently recoverable with mining) exploitable and profitable, according to the International Energy Agency. That’s a heck of a lot of new coal.
As with all of these technofixes desperately trying to keep the climate and community-destroying coal industry alive , Clean Coal Ltd and its UCG plans are nothing more than a money-making scheme, packed with venture capitalists holding hands with geologists and ensuring the continued destruction of the Earth’s ecosystems as they line their pockets.
 UK Energy in Brief 2009, Department of Energy and Climate Change. Total UK coal consumption in 2009 was 58.2 million tonnes.