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Solution found: Burn it Underground?

img_4No, is the short answer. Underground Coal Gassification (UCG), like all other Clean Coal technologies, is a technofix reliant more on suave greenwashing than on tested science. But, with companies such as Thornton New Energy, research bodies, ministers and local councils pushing ahead with it, it needs to be exposed for what it really is: a distraction from the real solutions, that will only make things worse by wasting what precious time we have left.

For the long answer, read on.

The Idea

Underground coal gasification (UCG) does exactly what the name suggests – it turns coal into a gas while still underground. The gas is then brought to the surface and can be supposedly processed to provide fuels for power generation, ultra-clean diesel, and hydrogen. If successful, Thornton reckon the technology could offer Scotland energy security for hundreds of years, as geological studies estimate that Scotland is sitting on at least 200 years’ worth of coal.


UCG like many other clean coal technologies is a pretty shady affair, reliant on unproven, untested and unavailable technology. If the products of the gasified coal once combusted aren’t captured and stored then the process is just as dirty as all the others, only cheaper as you don’t have to mine the coal. SANCnews has a good summary of what the process involves:

The Plan

It was announced in February that Thornton New Energy had been granted the UK’s first licence from the Coal Authority to use a process called underground coal gasification. Steve Walters, a director of the Aberdeen-based company, a subsidiary of BCG Energy, said that producing electricity from gas generated underground from coal allowed it to be processed so that CO2 could be removed, ensuring very low emissions (again, if you can’t store it effectively then that’s pretty useless!).

Thornton plans to drill into massive untapped seams under Fife and the Firth of Forth and convert coal into combustible gas while it is still underground. According to Thornton this “could create around 10,000 new jobs in Fife and transform the kingdom into a global centre of excellence”.

Fife Council is certainly excited about it: Councillor Tony Martin, strategic chair of the environment, enterprise and transportation committee said: “The fact that this licence was awarded to Fife shows that the area is an increasingly important player in the energy sector with the local skills and knowledge to undertake groundbreaking new projects. Fife is in an excellent position to help businesses continue to develop and succeed in this increasingly important industry.”

Walters said that the granting of the licence was a vital first step and the company will now begin detailed environmental and economic studies to test the viability of this project. If all goes to plan a full commercial operation could be up and running in five years. He wants to see strong leadership and legislation from the Scottish Government and Westminster on carbon capture, which would help drive interest and development in carbon capture and storage – pretty vital seeing as how the attraction of this technology hinges on it.

Of course doing something about the destruction being caused by Fife’s 3 open cast coal mines and the destruction to come when work starts at the recently approved mine at Blair Farm near Oakley doesn’t enter into the heads of these politicians, bureaucrats and capitalists. Along side all this expensive, time consuming and talked up technology is the fact that more and more open cast coal mines are opening in Scotland, including two in Fife in the past year that have made local residents seriously angry. Councillors like Tony Martin have a much simpler and cheaper option for reducing carbon emissions from coal: reject planning applications for new mines. Want coal to be clean? Then stop mining it!

The World Economic forum are also getting in on the act, of course, after a report prepared for the recent forum in Davos called for decisive leadership on clean coal. It said: “With so many countries, including China and the US, overwhelmingly dependent on coal for electricity, carbon capture and storage needs form part of the solution if we are to restrict CO2.”

So, we’ve got Energy chiefs, councillors, ministers and global economic institutions all trying to make a killing by capitalising on the environmental crisis, which is ultimately killing life on the planet. Some things never change.

The Problem

All of the above amounts to nothing more than business as usual. Einstein got it right when he said that you can’t use the same thinking to solve a problem as the thinking that caused it. Yes its a bit of a cliché, but we can’t rely on market-driven solutions, or the politicians and corporate heads driving the market-driven solutions to solve climate change, as they created it.

Clean coal technologies such as UCG are nothing more than a way for corporations and governments to capitalise on the climate crisis. A good example of this are the ‘rules’ set out in the UK for new coal-fired power stations, saying that they have to be ‘carbon capture ready’, which, according to Caroline Lucas MEP, being ‘CCS ready’ means “there is a big space much like a car park next to the proposed coal fire station” – nothing more.

None of the underlying problems will be addressed by these technologies. In fact, owing to the fact that these technologies are well and truly speculative and don’t actually exist beyond using CO2 injection to squeeze out more oil from oil fields, the only thing of any substance to them and the idea that they are ‘solutions’ is the thick layer of slimy greenwash covering everything these companies and politicians go near.

Worse still is the fact that the fixation on clean coal technologies is delaying any real progress on fighting climate change on a political level. But does this really surprise us? Are we still naive enough to believe that governments have the interests of the people they represent and the health of ecosystems in mind when they make decisions? Governments, councils and corporations are part of the problem, not the solution, and its about time we took the power back and made it truly clean.



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