Fuelling the fire: New coal technologies like UCG spell disaster for climate

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Given UCG's disastrous history including Linc Energy's irreversible environmental damage in Queensland, Friends of the Earth is calling for a moratorium on all UCG projects in Australia. Cam Walker from Friends of the Earth reports. 

IN RECENT years Australia, like many countries around the planet, has seen a major expansion in the development of unconventional oil and gas drilling.

These are oil and gas resources which cannot be produced by conventional processes (that is, through using the natural pressure of the wells to release the resource trapped in a coal or rock seam).

Until the 1990s, production of conventional oil and gas kept prices relatively stable, so there was limited incentive to develop technologies to explore and produce unconventional oil and gas resources.

In the 2000s, prices started to increase, and with known reserves starting to peak, it was clear that this trend would continue into the future.

As debate increasingly focused on energy independence, a number of countries who consume large volumes of fossil energy such as the USA, Canada and China started to realise they had potentially enormous volumes of unconventional oil and gas. This in turn lead to a major development effort that saw a huge expansion in the use of hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) to access methane in shale beds to produce gas in the USA and elsewhere.

Australia also has major reserves of oil and gas which could potentially yield through the use of unconventional drilling methods. Here the unconventional gas resource includes coal seam gas (CSG), shale gas and tight gas. Exploration for CSG in Australia began in 1976 in Queensland's Bowen Basin. The industry took hold, initially in Queensland, where there are currently around 4,000 onshore gas rigs. More than 37% of the Australian landmass is currently under exploration permit or application for coal or gas.

The UCG industry has been strongly resisted by regional communities and environmental groups around the country and the many dangers of fracking are well documented. This has resulted in moratoriums on fracking in states such as Victoria.

The transition away from fossil fuels to renewable technology is well underway. According to the UNEP's 10th 'Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016' report, all investments in renewables totalled US$286 billion in 2015, some three per cent higher than the previous record in 2011. Coal and gas-fired electricity generation drew less than half this record investment made in solar, wind and other renewables capacity. But as we enter the final stage in humanity’s long reliance on fossil fuels, a new threat is emerging.

After the recent Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in Canberra, gas is back on Australia’s agenda in a big way. Last week’s meeting of state and federal energy ministers in particular saw an extraordinary focus on gas in the electricity sector, with the new Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg calling for more gas production and an end to the state-based moratoriums.

However, there is another side to the gas debate, one that has received much less coverage, but which is slowly being pursued in a number of areas around the country. Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) and Coal Chemical technologies threaten to destabilise the earth’s climate and irreversibly damage local environments.

These new approaches, which seek to massively expand the volume of coal reserves which can be used, are dangerous ‘Frankenstein’ technologies. Underground Coal Gasification is an unconventional coal technology where coal seams are burnt under the ground to produce a type of synthesis gas (syn gas) for energy and industrial use. The Coal Chemical industry includes a suite of processes where coal is turned into oil, gas and chemical products for commercial and domestic use.

While UCG has been held out as a dream technology by its proponents since it was proposed in the 1930s, it has gone almost nowhere. Previous UCG test operations have left a legacy of contamination in the USA. There is only one commercial UCG operation in the world at present, in Uzbekistan. This plant feeds syn gas to a small power plant. However, there is interest in and development of UCG in Australia, Europe, Russia, Canada, the U.S., China and India at present. Like carbon capture and storage, UCG and coal chemical technologies have absorbed vast amounts of research and development money for very little tangible outcome.

While there is no commercial production of UCG in Australia, there have previously been test operations in Queensland, and two are currently underway in South Australia. A UCG trial conducted by Linc Energy in Australia from 1999-2013 ended in a major contamination incident with "irreversible damage" to the environment. The company is being prosecuted for five counts of "willfully and unlawfully causing serious environmental harm" between July 2007 and December 2013. Linc Energy went into voluntary administration in April 2016, and in May 2016 it was announced that the company is going into liquidation.

Climate science makes it is clear that the time for new development of fossil fuels is long over. To have a chance to stay below 1.5C of overall warming will mean we need to keep almost all currently accessible coal in the ground. Yet some in industry continue to peddle the illusion that UCG will offer new investment and employment in communities which are currently reliant on traditional coal production for domestic use or export and ‘lower emissions’ options for producing energy. If successful, UCG could allow new sources of coal to be exploited.

Following the Linc disaster, the industry was banned in Queensland. It is currently under moratorium in Scotland and Wales.

Friends of the Earth has recently released a report called ‘Fuelling the Fire: the chequered history of Underground Coal Gasification and Coal Chemicals around the world’

The report draws together evidence of UCG test projects over the last three decades and highlights how destructive UCG and Coal Chemicals are:

  • Globally, Underground Coal Gasification could dramatically fuel climate change by potentially creating an extra 1650 billion tonnes of CO2-four times the total amount that can be emitted if the world is to avoid catastrophic climate change.
  • Irreversible environmental damage has been done by Linc Energy’s recent Underground Coal Gasification experiment in Queensland, Australia, prompting the Queensland government to ban the technology.
  • The US has been the testing ground for several UCG experiments that have resulted in long-term contamination of groundwater.
  • Coal-to-Chemicals, the process of converting coal into different gases, liquid fuels and chemical products, have devastating impacts on local environments in South Africa and China with their massive water, coal and energy consumption.
  • Sasol’s Coal Chemical plants in South Africa every year produces 35 million cubic metres of liquid effluent laden with metals and salts which creates toxic waste dumps, pits and ponds.

The report includes case studies from Australia, China, South Africa, the UK and the US.

Report author, Flick Monk, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth Scotland, commented:

“If we are serious about doing our fair share to tackle climate change, we must say no to extremely polluting new fossil fuel developments. The vast quantities of carbon emissions that would be unlocked by UCG technology, if the industry ever get it right, would push the world further towards catastrophic climate change.”

Dipti Bhatnagar, Climate Justice & Energy International programme co-coordinator, Friends of the Earth International commented:

"Governments who welcomed last years' Paris agreement should end their support and subsidies, ban this unnecessary and dirty technology, and instead focus on a people-centred transition to clean, renewable energy systems.”

Bobby Peek, from groundWork South Africa, said:

“Turning coal into liquid fuels, Synthetic Natural Gas and other chemical products leaves a huge footprint from the massive coal extraction, water consumption, energy use and the creation of toxic waste. We call on Coal Chemicals to be phased out and for no new plants to be built anywhere in the world.”

The best chance that the global community will have to stop the development of these destructive technologies is now. Once further projects are approved it can be expected they will leave the same contamination footprint that has dogged previous UCG ventures. Friends of the Earth International calls for an end to the expansion of UCG and Coal Chemicals. Climate change is already having a devastating impact on communities across the world. There must be total phase out of these technologies to have a hope of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees.

On releasing the report, Friends of the Earth International is calling for:

  • No new public money into Research and Development of UCG and Coal Chemicals
  • An end to public subsidies for existing UCG and Coal Chemicals
  • A ban on new UCG and Coal Chemicals development
  • A rapid phase out of existing UCG and Coal Chemicals industries

Given the disastrous precedent in Queensland, Friends of the Earth is calling for a moratorium on all UCG projects in Australia. There is a petition to the new federal Energy and Environment, Josh Frydenberg, calling on him to support such a ban available here.

Cam Walker is campaigns co-ordinator with Friends of the Earth. You can follow Cam on Twitter @Cam_Walker.

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