Government rejects UCG but fracking still on the table

Environmentalists protested over UCG plans on the Firth of Forth. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Environmentalists protested over UCG plans on the Firth of Forth. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The Scottish Government is calling for a ban on underground coal gasification saying it poses serious environmental risks.

A moratorium was put in place on UCG (underground coal gasification) in October last year to gather and consider evidence on the practice.

Professor Campbell Gemmell of University of Glasgow was tasked to undertake the independent examination of UCG.

The Scottish Government made its decision after receiving his report today after Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy Paul Wheelhouse updated Parliament on the response to the findings.

The report finds that it would appear logical “to progress toward a ban” of UCG based on a variety of reasons, including:

• the UCG industry having a history of incidents of pollution and losses of containment

• UCG presenting a serious issue to face in reducing Scotland’s carbon/greenhouse gas emissions without an operational storage method, such as carbon capture

Despite the Scottish Government’s position at this time, using UCG in the future has not been ruled out.

Mr Wheelhouse said: “Having considered the report in detail, it is the Scottish Government’s view that UCG poses numerous and serious environmental risks and, on that basis, the Scottish Government cannot support this technology. Accordingly, UCG will have no place in Scotland’s energy mix at this time.

“In Professor Gemmell’s report he recommends it would be wise to consider an approach to UCG based upon a precautionary presumption against the technology, and that it would appear logical to progress toward a ban.

“I cannot predict what kind of clean energy technologies may be available in the decades to come, but what is certain is that this resource will still be there.

“As a result of today’s announcement, our Energy Strategy for Scotland will set out an energy mix for the future that does not include UCG. The position I have announced on UCG is a clear validation of the evidence-based approach this government is taking and I thank Professor Gemmell for his work in preparing the report.”

UCG is different from hydraulic fracturing – also known as fracking – or coal-bed methane, both of which are Unconventional Oil and Gas (UOG) technologies.

Today’s announcement has no bearing on the policy on either of these technologies, which remain covered by the Scottish Government’s moratorium on UOG technologies.

Mr Wheelhouse has written to the UK Government requesting that it issues no further UCG licences in Scotland and that existing licences are revoked.

The Scottish Government said it will continue to use planning powers available to it to ensure UCG applications do not receive planning or environmental permission.

Professor Campbell Gemmell, Professor of Environment Research, Policy, Regulation and Governance at University of Glasgow, said:

“I have consulted widely, including with industry, communities, regulators, academic specialists and NGOs and studied the available evidence on the technologies and impacts involved in Underground Coal Gasification, including the variety of international experience.

“It is extremely difficult to conceive of UCG progressing into use at this time. Despite there being few longer-term operations at scale to consider, and no directly comparable operations in siting, regulatory and policy terms, there is both a history of incidents of pollution and losses of containment.

“In my view, the Scottish Government has responded appropriately to the available evidence on this technology.

“Should industry wish to progress this technology at scale here or overseas at some future date, several key factors would need to be addressed, including managing the potential impact of the greenhouse gases produced.

“The onus would also clearly be with the industry to demonstrate and provide evidence that it can operate to the high environmental standards that the government and public should expect.”

There were plans by energy firm Cluff Natural Resources to build an offshore UCG plant to extract gas from seams under the Firth of Forth at Kincardine.