Wednesday 22 January 2014

Underground coal gasification and the Loughor Estuary

Over 250 people attended a public meeting in Burry Port on underground coal gasification (UCG) last Saturday. The event was organised by the local MP, Nia Griffith (Lab) to hear from Cluff Natural Resources about the firm's plans to begin extracting gas from coal reserves offshore under the Loughor Estuary. Algy Cluff had been expected to attend, but did not show up.

By all accounts it was a pretty lively affair.

What is Underground Coal Gasification?

Coal gasification has been around for a long time, and was pioneered by the Soviet Union in the 1930s, but it has never been undertaken on a commercial scale offshore.

Reuters provides some useful background information on the process here:

"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."

Cluff believes that UCG could be a second North Sea, producing large amounts of gas from commercially unviable coal reserves, while opponents are concerned about the risk to the environment of a process which releases very large quantities of highly toxic chemicals and gases.

According to the Reuters piece which quotes an EU study, the cost of electricity produced by UCG is significantly higher than conventional gas power generation, and that does not include the high cost of carbon capture and storage which the UK government says will be a precondition of any UCG production site.

The Plans for Burry Port and the Loughor Estuary 

In January 2013 the Coal Authority, an arm of the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, awarded an UCG license for the Loughor Estuary to Cluff Natural Resources plc.  Clockwise, the boundary of the area involved starts at Burry Port and goes via Llanelli, Bynea, Llangennech, Hendy, there crossing the Loughor river to Loughor and along the Gower Coast to Penclawdd and as far as Llanmadog (only 5 miles from Rhosili).  It extends over some 42 square kilometres of sea-bed but UCG operations are extremely likely to encroach into locations beneath the towns and villages mentioned.

Loughor Estuary

To proceed with the proposed UCG the company will have to apply for and be granted planning and environmental consents.  Planning consent application will be considered by Swansea City and County Council and Carmarthenshire County Council, and environmental consent by Natural Resources Wales (the Welsh Government’s principal advisor body on the environment since 1 April 2013).

The site at Burry Port is favoured as the gas will have to be refined and burnt onshore as quickly as possible, and the developers feel that the fact that Burry Port has had a power station before, means they have an ideal site to use with little local opposition likely.

A quick glance at any map of the area shows that none of this can be carried out without going through the Millennium Coastal Park, and the likelihood is that there would have to be a gas refinery and power station very close to or actually in the park itself.

It is understood that Cluff's project could produce around 300 mainly unskilled or semi-skilled jobs for local people, with specialist drilling and extraction teams being imported from elsewhere.

The Politics

As we have seen, Cluff Natural Resources was granted a licence by a UK government agency, something which highlights again the fact that under the devolution settlement Wales does not have control over its own natural resources, and that decisions which affect the environment and people of Wales are being taken far away in Whitehall.

Last week the UK Government announced that in future councils would be allowed to keep 100% of business rates derived from fracking operations, rather than 50% previously.

Although fracking is not the same as UCG, the announcement by David Cameron last week shows that in some areas at least government policy can change very quickly, particularly when large and powerful companies are involved.

The sudden change in the rules on fracking raises concerns about conflicts of interest for local authorities which stand to gain significant new revenue in return for favourable planning decisions.

Step forward Carmarthenshire County Council which has a long and inglorious record of pushing through planning applications in which its interests override those of local people. Stradey Park in Llanelli is the best known example, but there are plenty more where that came from.

The county council also has a long and disastrous record of turning a blind eye to pollution in the Burry Inlet, and a council officer who attended the Cluff meeting was reminded of this when he assured incredulous listeners that the council would police pollution and regulation if the scheme went ahead.

Watch out for Kevin Madge rounding on critics later this year as he talks about taking difficult decisions to create jobs, jobs, jobs. No matter what the cost to the environment or the existing communities of Carmarthenshire.

The Labour Party itself seems ambivalent about the scheme. To be fair to Nia Griffith, she did not have to call the meeting, and her aim was probably to highlight the issues involved. Unfortunately, her record is another matter.

In 2011 she voted against a proposal to devolve the Welsh assets of the Crown Estate to the Welsh Government. The Crown Estate owns the territorial seabed.

A couple of weeks ago she joined 26 other Welsh Labour MPs in abstaining on a vote to devolve water to the Assembly, even though Carwyn Jones's government said in its submission to the Silk Commission that it was in favour of these powers being devolved.

Plaid Cymru in Llanelli made its position clear in a press release in August last year. Press releases don't always make for good reading, but this is extremely well written, informative and clear. It is one of the sources used in this blogpost, and it is definitely worth a read.

The press release ends with a 10-point summary of concerns (reproduced below), and many of these were raised during the meeting. Those who attended left feeling that Cluff had not answered them.

The grave objections to permitting UGC in the Loughor Estuary.
  1. It would produce syngas which on burning (as a fuel) would yield very large amounts of the global-warming gas – carbon dioxide – thus contributing to the already alarming global climate change.
  2. As with all underground coal extraction, there is a high risk of subsidence that might well disastrously affect homes and other buildings in a number of the above-mentioned towns and villages.  There is well documented evidence that this has occurred in other parts of the world.
  3. Subsidence could well lead to a catastrophe in the Loughor Estuary due to its risk of rupturing the high-pressure natural gas (197 mile long, 4 feet diameter) pipeline lying beneath south Wales from Milford Haven to Tirley (Gloucestershire), which crosses the Loughor Estuary below water level between Llangennech and Hendy.  An explosion of this pipeline could well cost lives.
  4. The construction of this pipeline some 6 years ago showed how UK governments ride roughshod over the strong objections of local people – in this case almost all the people of south Wales. It also – once again – demonstrated that the UK government can always completely ignore the objections of the people of Wales. After all 82% of MPs represent English constituencies and they are not answerable to the people of Wales.  As such, it is likely that the current UK government will again intervene in the same manner in the case of UCG in the Loughor Estuary.
  5. We are firmly in favour of the responsibility for all the energy produced in Wales being transferred from Westminster to the Welsh Assembly.  Then, all energy decisions in Wales will be made by Assembly Members (AMs).  All AMs represent constituencies in Wales and are directly answerable to the people of Wales and only to them, so that they are far more likely to take heed of the views of our people than MPs in the Westminster Parliament.
  6. The Gower Peninsular was the first area in the UK to be designated “An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” – in 1956.  There is no doubt that this industrial development – if it proceeds – will desecrate the northern part of the Gower coastline, as well as Llanelli’s Millennium Coastal Park.  As such, it is beyond belief that the Coal Authority has awarded Cluff plc with an UCG license for the Loughor Estuary which itself has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
  7. The development is almost certain to have an adverse effect on the price of houses near the estuary.
  8. It is highly likely to adversely affect the centuries-old cockle beds of the estuary and thereby deprive local cockle pickers of their living.
  9. Who would benefit from this UCG development other than Cluff plc shareholders?  The people of Burry Port, Llanelli, Llangennech or Penclawdd?  Almost certainly not.   What about the people of Wales in general?  Proponents of UCG claim that its development in the Loughor estuary will reduce gas bills in the area.  We are exceedingly sceptical of this claim. Moreover, the people of Wales don’t need this additional energy because well over half the energy currently produced in Wales (mainly electricity) is transported (donated?) to England.  Likewise, the imported natural gas pipeline from Milford Haven that heads for England – bypassing (or under-passing) Wales, which also brings to mind the enormous quantities of virtually free water flowing from Wales to England every day.
  10. There is compelling evidence from other parts of the world that UCG pollutes the underground water table – a totally unacceptable side effect.


Owen said...

I'm, admittedly, on the fence when it comes to the fracking/UCG issue.

It could be a decent long-term supply of gas that could provide a local stop-gap until there's a complete switch to renewables. Or, it can be burned off quickly in order to shore up the UK's energy supply due to poor long-term planning.

Needless to say, I support devolution of energy, but I guess I didn't need to say that.

Schemes like this might be fine on an old industrial estate or on upland moors. Trying to do it in an area as environmentally sensitive as the Loughor/Gower - and, as the press release points out, close to the LNG pipeline - seems ill-considered.

Draig said...

Great post. Far better in fact than the rubbish article cobbled together by the Llanelli Star!

I've come to this post a bit late in the day, but there's a little additional tidbit of pertinent info on this meeting here:



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