SLAPPing campaigners for telling the truth – the underground coal gasification lobby turns even nastier

May 21, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

1970s US UCG Trials

Published in ‘The Ecologist’, 20th May 2014, under the title, "Coal gas company warns – stop campaigning or we will sue"

SLAPP – a "strategic lawsuit against public participation"[1]. SLAPPing is a tactic often used in the USA[2], where companies intent on environmental destruction pre-emptively sue leading local campaigners in order to quash the local opposition[3]. That tactic raised its head in Britain last week in relation to a technology that makes "fracking" look reasonable.

Quietly, and with Government support[4], underground coal gasification (UCG) has been on the agenda for a while. 20-odd licences have been issued[5] around the coast of Britain, and there’s an application for a site in Warwickshire[6].

This week Cluff Natural Resources[7] will be having their shareholder meeting in London – with protesters in attendance[8] – and they will undoubtedly try and "accentuate the positive" about the concept in order to make investors part with their cash. For a while UCG has seemed a bit of a joke – so extreme in fact, who in their right mind would try and do it here?

Last week the ‘cold war’ battle over UCG got hotter when lawyers for one of the companies – Five Quarter Energy Holdings[9] – sent a legal threat to Scottish campaigner Mel Kelly. What unsettlingly fiendish action had she done in order to receive such threats? She wrote a short report[10] about the politically-backed project for UCG and sent it to politicians in Scotland. The ‘cease and desist’[11] letter their lawyers sent was fairly silly, but the part that made me laugh out loud was the following paragraph –

Five-Quarter denies that UCG activities are as dangerous as you imply. The UCG industry, like all natural resource related industries, faces risks and challenges. There have been hundreds of trials of UCG worldwide which have been completed successfully, without any safety concerns.

As far as I’m concerned that statement is either willingly misleading, or by their ignorance of the facts they have demonstrated that they are not "fit and proper persons" to operate such a site. We only have to look at the long, polluted history of this process to see why.

Underground coal gasification – or "setting fire to coal seams underground" (as my son, with a giggle, calls it) – involves drilling two holes into a coal seam. Oxygen-enriched air is pumped down one of the holes. The coal burns and when it gets hot enough, starved of sufficient oxygen for complete oxidation, produces a stream of flammable gases called ‘syngas’[12] – mainly a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and some methane and volatile organic compounds. Unfortunately, just like old town gas works[13], it also creates lots of noxious pollutants too.

The idea is well over a hundred years old but, contrary to the lawyers letter, there have NOT been "hundreds" of trials worldwide. There have been a few, and they’ve mostly gone wrong.

The idea first took off in Soviet Russia in the 1930s. In Britain trails took place at two sites in the 1950s, but were closed after a Parliamentary debate in 1955 when a local MP asked[14], "is my honourable Friend aware that these underground gasification experiments are causing a very nasty smell round Kidderminster?".

Then the idea resurfaced in the USA after the 1970s oil crisis. Trials took place at Hoe Creek, Hanna and Rawlins in Wyoming. At Hoe Creek, which was quite shallow, the ground caved in and smoke poured out. At Hanna they carried on gasification trials for a number of years – before declaring it a ‘superfund site’[15] in order that the Federal Government could provide the money to pay for the decontamination of the groundwater[16] in the area. Rawlins never really got going.

Next the idea jumped across to Europe, where European Commission-funded trials took place. During the 1980s the project at Thulin, in Belgium, didn’t really take off. In 1997 the project at El Tremedal in Spain did take off – certainly after an underground explosion[17] shot a geyser of coal tar up the production pipe and over the site.

UCG seemed dead, but like a bad penny it next turned up in Queensland, Australia. In the early 2000s three companies – Cougar Energy at Kingaroy, Linc Energy at Chincilla and Carbon Energy at Blackwood Creek – set up a joint venture with the state government to carry out further trails. Better still, for the public at least, the Queensland Government established a scientific committee to monitor the sites.

The scientific committee’s report in 2011[18] presented a catalogue of errors – insufficient baseline studies, poor monitoring, pollution of the soil surrounding one of the sites, and one site had carcinogenic solvents in the local groundwater. Certainly enough to warrant closer attention by regulators.

The committee’s 2013 report[19] was worse. Quite apart from continuing pollution issues, they were concerned that the operators did not have the capability to safely decommission the sites, and recommended that this be done before the trials proceeded further.

Then in 2013 Cougar Energy was prosecuted and fined A$75,000[20] for polluting the local groundwater with benzene and toluene. A few weeks ago Linc Energy had charges brought against them[21] for polluting the groundwater in a similar manner – which they are currently contesting. In the mean time the locals are concerned because information isn’t being put into the public domain[22] about what really happened at the sites.

Both Cougar and Linc and Carbon Energy have now shut down; but they’re not finished yet!

Cougar is trawling their services around Asia, while Linc has tried its hand in southern Africa[23], and once again has proposed trials back in Wyoming[24] – against the wishes of local campaign groups there[25]. But in Wyoming, Linc have come up with a revolutionary way to prevent pollution. They’ve asked the local regulator to reclassify the groundwater around the site[26] so that if they have leaks, it won’t necessarily be considered "pollution".

In the mean time Linc has licensed its technology to another pilot plant, at Majuba in South Africa[27]. That started work in 2007, and they’re pumping groundwater from around the test site to stop it being polluted. However, there appears to be no monitoring information, and there have been complaints that Linc are using intellectual property rights to prevent the disclosure of information[28] about operations on the site. Linc also have interests at the world’s longest running site at Angren in Uzbekistan[29]. That’s been operational since 1961, but again, no monitoring of the emissions or groundwater appears to exist.

Currently Cluff Natural Resources are trying to peddle their wares to Fife Council[30] – where they have two licences underneath the Firth of Forth. Cluff also own licences off the Wirral[31], where they are making noises, and perhaps worst of all, under one of Wales’ most valuable wildlife sites – the Loughor Estuary[32], near Swansea. They’re even making noises up the coast from Sellafield![33]

The big issue here is that all these "trials" involve gasifying a few hundred tonnes to a few thousand tonnes of coal here and there each year. To be a commercially viable technology in an energy-hungry country like Britain, they would have to gasify a few thousand tonnes of coal EVERY DAY. If these small trials cause pollution, what happens when they scale that up by a factor of three to five hundred in order to become commercially viable. But, with our fracking-mad Government, it’s only a short step to UCG "carbon-geddon".

Five Quarter says that Mel Kelly’s report is spreading untrue and erroneous information which damages their business. Arguably she doesn’t need to do that – the historic reputation of UCG process speaks for itself! And sending threatening letters to local campaigners, making malicious claims which are demonstrably false, doesn’t wash that record clean. It’s a dangerous process, with no safe record of operation on even a commercial scale… quite simply, if you think fracking is bad, UCG is worse!

The problem is that, as with fracking, the issue here isn’t environmental safety, or energy production. It’s about companies extracting cash from gullible governments and ignorant investors in order to carry on their outrageous pipe dreams. And when it all goes wrong, all those involved in the project get paid – it’s the local environment, and the people, who ultimately pay the price for their acquisitiveness.



  1. Wikipedia: ‘Strategic lawsuit against public participation’
  2. For example, to take a very recent fossil fuel industry case Legal Notice on book, “Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis": a SLAPP assault on democratic rights, Gopal Krishna, ToxicsWatch, 19th April 2014 –
  3. EDF’s vengeful £5m No Dash for Gas lawsuit is corporate and PR suicide, George Monbiot, Guardian On-line, 28th February 2013 –
  4. Review of the Feasibility of Underground Coal Gasification in the UK, Cleaner Fossil Fuels Programme, Department for Trade and Industry, November 2004 –
  5. Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) – Policy Statement For Licensing, Coal Authority, December 2009 –
  6. NoUCGWarks
  7. Cluff Natural Resources
  8. Demonstration at London AGM of Cluff Natural Resources, Occupy London –
  9. Five Quarter Energy Holdings Limited
  10. Theft of Austerity Britain’s Coal: UCG Licenses, Lies & Insatiable Greed of the 1%, Mel Kelly, 1st October 2013 –
  11. Wikipedia: ‘Cease and desist’
  12. Wikipedia: ‘Syngas’
  13. Wikipedia: ‘Coal gas’
  14. Underground Gasification Experiments, Worcestershire, House of Commons Debates, vol.546 columns 1919-20, 28th November 1955 –
  15. Wikipedia: ‘Superfund’
  16. A Restoration Plan for the Hanna Underground Coal Gasification Site in Carbon County, Wyoming, Gretchen Herdan, Laramie Project Office, U.S. Department of Energy, August 1986 –
  17. Section 3.3.2, Disasters and Minewater: Practice and Prevention, Harvey Wood, IWA Publishing, 2012 –
  18. Summary of considerations and recommendations on the Environmental Evaluations of Cougar Energy, Independent Scientific Panel on Underground Coal Gasification, Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management, 24th January 2011 –
  19. Independent Scientific Panel Report On Underground Coal Gasification Pilot Trials, Independent Scientific Panel on Underground Coal Gasification, Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management, June 2013 –
  20. Cougar Energy has been fined $75,000 for releasing a cancer-causing chemical into groundwater at a project in Queensland, Courier Mail (Brisbane), 24th September 2013 –
  21. Queensland government hits Underground Coal Gasification player Linc Energy with environmental damage charges, Government News, 15th April 2014 –
  22. Queensland landholders claim secrecy over experimental coal gasification plant, ABC News Australia, 16th April 2014 –
  23. Linc Energy receives A$20m in payment for African coal gasification project, Straits Times, 16th January 2014 –
  24. Group challenges plan to burn coal underground, Gillette News Record, 15th November 2013 –
  25. Wyoming Council Rejects Residents’ Protests Of Underground Coal Gasification Plant, ThinkProgress, 18th November 2013 –
  26. Proposed coal gas project would require reclassification of sub-surface water, The Ranger, 25th March 2014 –
  27. Eskom: ‘Majuba, South Africa’
  28. The battle of Majuba goes underground, Mail and Guardian, 17th January 2014 –
  29. Linc Energy: ‘Yerostigaz’
  30. MSP says Largo Bay subsea fuel plans are ‘too risky’, The Courier (Fife), 16th October 2013 –
  31. Labour hopes to unite Wales and Wirral in campaign against controversial Dee Estuary drilling, Wirral Globe, 9th May 2014 –
  32. Meeting over coal gas plan for Loughor Estuary, BBC News, 14th August 2014 –
  33. Experts want to test for gas off the Whitehaven coast, Whitehaven News, 1st May 2014 –

Paul Mobbs

Paul Mobbs is an independent environmental consultant, investigator, author and lecturer, and maintains the Free Range Activism Website (FRAW).

Tags: underground coal gasification