Oct 042013

Last week, we presented an article by Mel Kelly on the dangers of Unconventional Coal Gasification (UCG), and the possibility of this being practiced in the UK. This week, we are grateful for Mel’s permission to bring you further news of the nature of investment in UCG and of who stands to gain,  or lose. This article was recently published on the open democracy site http://www.opendemocracy.net/author/mel-kelly and has not been amended for publication in Voice.

CoalSquareThe government is giving away the rights to up to a billion tonnes of coal to a company owned by an ex-Conservative party fundraiser. Rather than filling his pockets, couldn’t this revenue source be used for the public good?

The coalition government is providing a former Conservative Party fundraiser’s new company with licences which secure his company the rights and interests to billions of tons of the nation’s coal for UCG processing.

UCG stands for underground coal gasification – a process to drill wells to set fire to coal underground and extract the gas by-products – both onshore and offshore.

Official reports in 2009, 2011 and 2012 on UCG pilot studies in India, America and Australia resulted in major water contamination with highly toxic carcinogenic chemicals, Benzene and Toluene, (contamination which one private company covered up for 2 months) and the EU trial ending in disaster when they could not control the technology resulting in an explosion and the trial being abandoned.

Just a few weeks ago an independent scientific panel in Queensland advised the state government against the development of a UCG industry until the firms involved can demonstrate the ability to put out the underground coal fires the process creates.

Algy Cluff, the founder of one of the companies recently handed multiple UCG licenses for both onshore and offshore by the Department of Energy & Climate Change, actually stated last week the technology is not proven offshore . Yet, he is about to embark on a UCG offshore test in Scotland. And when we say offshore, this does not mean the North Sea – the test is to be carried out in the Firth of Forth.

UCG licenses are also being issued for the Thames Estuary, SwanseaBay, the Dee Estuary and the Humber Estuary – as well as the North and Irish seas – when the technology still poses risks of major contamination with UCG carcinogenic chemicals as well as explosions and subsidence.

Onshore licences have also been made available for Warwickshire, Dumfries&Galloway, Cumbria and Lincolnshire with Algy Cluff claiming the technology was “proven onshore – despite the Queensland decision.

The people of Warwickshire and Fife are up in arms as they have only just found out about Algy Cluff’s plans to burn billions of tonnes of coal underground in their area to extract gas. So who exactly is Algy Cluff and what experience does he have in UCG?

David Cameron has opened the windows of this country once again

Algy Cluff made a fortune in North Sea oil in the 1970s and has been involved in Africa since the 60’s, where he had various mining interests including gold and platinum and “during his time in Zimbabwe he became a friend of the now-despised Robert Mugabe, the country’s president.”

He stood as a Conservative candidate in the 1966 General Election and used to own the Spectator magazine where he had former Tory Party Chairman Norman Tebbit and Francis Maude, the current Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Paymaster General, on his board of Directors

Cluff was the unpaid external director of fundraising for the Conservative Party, securing large donations from prominent Hong Kong businessmen until June 1993 and he also helped fund Kenneth Clarke’s Tory Party leadership campaign in 2005.

Algy Cluff told Country Life magazine “he’s pleased with the Coalition” and of the Labour Party he said ‘I am thrilled that we’ve got rid of those snarling thugs, devoid of humour, manners or judgment. David Cameron has opened the windows of this country once again, and, although there are difficult times ahead, it is possible to hear the sound of laughter.’

After years abroad Algy Cluff returned to set up Cluff Natural Resources in the UK on 21st February 2012, just in time to apply for the new licences to the rights and interests in Britain’s coal for projects which his Board believes could generate significant value for Cluff Natural Resources shareholders – no wonder Algy Cluff predicted the sound of laughter.

The Firth of Forth in Scotland, just one of the coalition government new UCG licensed areas for which Cluff Natural Resources has secured a UCG license, has a target to burn up to 1 billion tonnes of untapped coal.

Despite only being formed in 2012 The Cluff Natural Resources website states: “The Company currently has 100% working interest in five Deep Underground Coal Gasification (‘UCG’) Licences in the UK covering a total of 30,881 hectares of Carmarthenshire and the Dee Estuary, the North Wales/Merseyside border, the Firth of Forth near Kincardine, Scotland, North Cumbria and Largo Bay. Cluff Natural Resources intends to carry out a Scoping Study on the licences and identify an area for test production” using unproven technology which, it has been established, can potentially cause major contamination of groundwater with carcinogenic chemicals, cause explosions and subsidence above and below ground.

fracking is one of the processes used.

Regarding the test site in the Firth of Forth in Scotland, last week Algy Cluff made the claim to a local newspaper, to justify his forthcoming drilling,There would be no introduction of water or chemicals, unlike fracking”.

According to Science and Technology review’s explanation of the UCG process “In the UCG process, injection wells are drilled into an unmined coal seam, and either air or oxygen is injected into the cavity. Water is also needed and may be pumped from the surface or may come from the surrounding rock.”

The UCG Consulting website the UCG process requires “injecting oxidant and possibly steam or water to support combustion and the carbon gasification reactions”. Additionally, section 14 of Shell’s submission to the British Government regarding UCG states that fracking is one of the processes used.

Why is Algy Cluff so desperate to try to distance UCG from its requirement for water and fracking when everyone else in the industry is open and honest about the requirements? How is he able to claim the onshore UCG process is proven when it has run into so many problems around the world?

And why are the Tory MPs in charge of the Department of Energy and Climate Change so desperate to issue licences now, before the technology is determined to be safe? Could it be they are worried that if they wait, they will have lost the next election and the power to issue licences to private companies of their choice before the nation realises what is going on?

Should private companies be handed the rights to nation’s coal reserves without the government consulting the British people? Bearing in mind that, according to a Department of Trade and Industry reportThe UK resource suitable for deep seam UCG is estimated at 17 billion tonnes, or 300 years’ supply at current consumption, according to a Department of Trade & Industry report.”

The government charges telecoms companies billions of pounds just to use the airwaves of Britain for their profit – so how much is the nation’s 300 years worth of coal reserves worth to a country undergoing tough austerity? Rather than privatising our coal reserves to further enrich the wealthy, perhaps this source of revenue might be better used to bolster our empty public purse.

Images courtesy of Freefoto.com.

Click here for video of Mel Kelly being interviewed by Denis Campbell online – re. UCG

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Sep 272013

Aberdeen Voice is grateful to citizen journalist Mel Kelly for bringing to our attention the little known, but highly controversial issue of Unconventional Coal Gasification, and for granting permission to use one of her articles recently published on the Open Democracy site.

Coalbags - http://www.freefoto.com/As demonstrations grow against “fracking” in the UK, another controversial gas extraction method has quietly been licensed.

Underground Coal Gasification, or UCG, is the drilling of wells to set fire to underground coal seams and the channelling of the mixture of gas by-products including hydrogen, carbon monoxide, methane and large volumes of carbon dioxide up to the surface.

Two well heads are required in the UCG process, one to inject air or oxygen down to the coal chamber and another to extract the resulting mix of gases produced by burning the coal underground.

Water taken either from the surface, or from below the ground is also required for the UCG process (over and above the water private companies already want to use for “fracking”). Once the gas runs out in the initial well location, the well heads are moved to follow the coal seam. This process leaves behind underground caverns contaminated with toxic waste, as well as scarring the countryside further as the wellheads creep along.

But scarring the countryside is the least of the environmental risks caused as a direct result of UCG gas extraction methods.

Reports on onshore UCG trials from America in 1993Australia in 2011 and India in 2012 state UCG onshore trials had to be halted after groundwater was contaminated.  Contaminants included benzene – which can cause leukaemia and bone marrow abnormalities in humans and animals – and toluene, which can affect the kidneys, nervous system, liver, brain and heart as well as causing miscarriages.

Friends Of The Earth’s Australian website states:

 “The Department of Environment Resource Management recently had to shut down a UCG project in Queensland by Cougar Energy, after the discovery that local bores had become polluted with carcinogenic chemicals such as benzene and toluene. The contamination meant farmers in the area were unable to use the bores.

“The company however, didn’t notify the department until two months after it became aware of the contamination.” 

Cougar Energy announced on August 19th that it is trying to change its name to Moreton Resources as:

its current name is strongly linked to UCG and may be disadvantageous for attracting and retaining the support of investors in the future

Coal2 - http://www.freefoto.com/

Of course, groundwater contamination is not the only serious consequence of the UCG process to extract gas.

Experts admit UCG also creates major subsidence risks both above and below ground.

The Frack Off website also listing 20 different known environmental risks it believes are associated with UCG gas extraction).

A 2011 American Report states:

“While UCG has a number of advantages, significant technological barriers must still be addressed before UCG can be considered commercially viable. Costly environmental consequences such as aquifer contamination and ground subsidence need consideration before commercial application.”

A few weeks ago, a Queensland Government panel rejected the commercial UCG industry in Queensland “until the companies proved they could halt the combustion process once gas had been extracted”, this is despite the companies using “world-leading technology” according to Mines Minister Andrew Cripps.

Even the European 1999 UCG trial had to be halted, with the Department of Trade Industry stating:

“a blockage that was impossible to clear, caused an underground explosion”

The Department of Energy and Climate Change webpage actually refers to this DTI sponsored trial claiming the trial has demonstrated the feasibility of UCG at depths typical of European coal  and neglects to mention that the facts of the trial was, in fact, a complete disaster which resulted in an underground explosion out of anyone’s control.

If numerous UCG pilot projects on four different continents were halted as a result of major groundwater contamination or events getting out of control resulting in an explosion what will the impact of an untested large scale industrial project in a country the size of the UK be – such as the one currently proposed in Warwickshire?

A newly formed British company, Cluff Natural Resources, has applied for the first onshore licence in the UK to start UCG gas extraction in Warwickshire, with their founder, Algy Cluff claiming underground coal gasification is “safe and unlike fracking”, despite evidence to the contrary from recent trials worldwide.

He also claims UCG “is a fairly well established practice internationally” – again despite the Queensland government banning UCG, on an industrial scale, just weeks ago because it is still not safe, even when using world leading technology.

If Algy Cluff gets his way, this proposed UCG project in Warwickshire, will result in an area affected about the same size as Coventry which would stretch from Ryton-on-Dunsmore through Bubbenhall, Weston-under-Wetherley, Hunningham, Princethorpe and Marton – just 7 miles from Leamington Spa – ironically once famed for the quality and medicinal properties of the local water.

And that is just the first UCG application for an onshore UCG project.

According to Frack Off, this is only the start of a number of “fracking” projects the coalition government are licensing across England and the rest of the UK.

David Cameron’s government is currently going to court with the aim to ensure private mining companies can shift their liabilities away from covering the full cost of cleaning up their toxic mess.

With “the Advocate General and KMPG arguing UK insolvency law trumps the Scottish environmental regulations, meaning liquidators would have the power to abandon environmental clean-up costs after the company with the responsibility for them has gone bust”, reinforcing Cameron’s demands we should all back his dash for gas “fracking” and UCG processes.

No wonder the people of Warwickshire are furious.

Images courtesy of Freefoto.com.

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Jun 182011

Nuclear Power has always been a contentious issue. There have always been advocates for and against. International concerns about Climate Change, an impending energy crisis and the nuclear accident in Japan have highlighted the issues concerned. Jonathan Hamilton Russell writes.

For CND there has always been the concern of the link between the technology of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons. The Sustainable Development Commission chaired, at the time by Jonathon Porrit in 2006, produced a report for the then Labour Government stating unanimously that, following a detailed analysis of sustainable development factors, that Nuclear was not the preferred option.

This followed a Government White Paper in 2003 which had concluded that Nuclear Power was not an Economic Option. Several days after the Sustainable Development Commission reported, Tony Blair announced that Nuclear Power was to be an essential component of our future Energy Provision.

Recently high profile environmentalists James Lovelock and George Monbiot have been converts to Nuclear Power given their concerns about Climate Change and the resulting requirements to cut back on Carbon omissions.

The SNP have long championed alternative energy and have been against Nuclear Power, as have the Scottish and English Green Parties, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Jonathon Porritt, who was sacked as the chair of the Sustainable Development commission still sees alternative energy and energy conservation as the way forward.

We have had until recently a bonanza of cheap energy in Scotland and the UK and the public has become used to cheap energy and the ability to regularly drive, fly and live and work in centrally heated buildings. This situation will soon end. The reality of peak oil and the need to import Russian Gas have yet to be admitted to the public by most politicians, and the expectations of the general public is that the status quo remains.  Whatever decisions are made, there will be inevitable opposition to both nuclear power and alternative energy. Climate Change has already gone down the political agenda.

We have failed to invest and research sufficiently, concentrating our efforts on oil, gas and also nuclear

The costs of producing both Nuclear Power and Alternative Energy will be much higher than present costs and will require both increased public subsidy and will mean rising costs for the consumer. The costs are likely to reduce as we become more expert at production of nuclear or its alternatives.

The costs of South Korea’s Nuclear Reactors went down by 28% by the time they produced their 7th and 8th Reactors.

Safety measures have improved – the Reactors in Japan are 40 years old – and the safety technology no longer requires power from outside. However, the risk of human error intentional or otherwise and unknown hazards still exist. The costs of insurance are high and do not include de-commissioning. The potential hazards of storage of spent Uranium still remain to be seen. Only three councils have agreed to storage underground – all three being in Cumbria.

There is however still uncertainty of risk in relation to this method of storage. Storage and waste costs still have to be borne by government. Increased use of Uranium will lead to shortages as estimates are that about 100 Years worth still remain, and when it runs out what will happen?

There are concerns and restrictions in many countries regarding the mining of Uranium, and Kazakhstan – a Muslim country on Iran’s border – has the main stocks. The costs of Uranium are likely to increase if there is more demand. There has historically been considerable contamination of local communities when mining has taken place, and even with greater safety measures some risks will remain.

The alternative is increased energy conservation and the use of renewables. As identified by the Sustainable Development Commission the UK – and in particular Scotland – has the potential with tidal energy, wind power, carbon capture, waste and power, and solar developments to cover our energy needs.

However there are challenges. We have failed to invest and research sufficiently, concentrating our efforts on oil, gas and also nuclear. There would have to be significant resources put into research and design, and if we were also putting our efforts into nuclear then opportunities with renewable would be lost.

The recession will mean there is less money to invest. A much better use than cutting the cost of petrol in the long term would have been to use the money from taxing oil companies to pay for the development of renewable energy resources.

There would be problems both with nuclear and renewable as to where to place energy resources.

There has been significant public opposition both to nuclear and wind developments. The Crown Estate commission has powers in relation to developing resources at sea which would have to be overcome.

The North-East of Scotland has a huge potential for the development of renewable energy and the area would benefit from more focus on its development. The main problem I would suggest in relation to our future energy provision, is public expectations and politicians needs in terms of re-election. People have become used to private transport and cheap central heating and whichever way we go will be unpopular.

My own conclusion is, that spending on Nuclear Energy developments will divert money that could be spent on energy efficiency and renewable energy. There is a challenge in relation to needs in terms of peak usage – such as before Christmas – but these could be overcome by us linking into a European network of energy.

In historical terms Nuclear Power is just another short term fix whilst the opportunity of renewable energy will always be with us. In some countries which are landlocked, Nuclear may be the only possible route but given what has happened in Japan potential risks of location would have to be taken into account.

Pictures: © Mark Rasmussen | Dreamstime.com, © Devy | Dreamstime.com

Apr 072011

Voice’s Alex Mitchell presents part 2 of an account of the key events which informed and influenced the Union Of Parliament between Scotland and England in 1707, and in doing so, impartially debunks some commonly held and perpetuated views on the issue.

In September 1705, the Scottish Parliament agreed to authorise Queen Anne to nominate Commissioners who were to ‘treat’ or negotiate for Union. She naturally nominated persons sympathetic to that objective, thirty-one from each country.

The English Commissioners were almost all Whigs; the Scots mostly so, such as John Campbell, the Duke of Argyll; but including some critics of the proposed incorporating union, notably the Jacobite George Lockhart of Carnwath, who favoured a federal union such as would have retained the Scottish Parliament as a political institution.

However, the English negotiators insisted that an incorporating union was the only acceptable solution, that nothing less would secure England’s northern borders against foreign aggression; to them, a federal union was simply out of the question and was directly vetoed by Queen Anne herself.

Queen Anne was a Tory whereas King William III’s advisers, if not William himself, had been Whigs; the Union was essentially a Whig project. Queen Anne was herself popular and untainted by Glencoe and the Darien failure. She had, obviously, a familial affection for the Stuarts, being herself, as it turned out, the last of the Stuart monarchs; but she was strongly committed to the Church of England and could not for that reason support her much younger Catholic half-brother James’ claim to the succession. She could not form an alliance with the (Tory) Jacobites without effectively uncrowning herself. She therefore had to press ahead with Williamite (Whig) policies such as the Union. The clauses of the Alien Act which were more offensive to the Scots were thus repealed before Christmas 1705.

The Union of 1707 may be described as an exchange, or surrender, of Scottish parliamentary sovereignty in return for the benefits of free trade with England and her colonies; specifically, of access to English markets. The population of England was four to five times that of Scotland, and richer, with greater per capita spending power. The Union has thus been described as a political necessity for England and a commercial necessity for Scotland. The arguments presented for and against Scotland’s membership of the British Union were strikingly similar to the more recent debate concerning Britain’s membership of the European Union.

Over the 17th century, Scotland’s economy had become increasingly dependent on the English market. Half of Scotland’s exports, mainly of black cattle, linen, wool, coal and sheep, went to England; of this total, cattle accounted for 40% by 1703. The war with France disrupted trade with that country. There were severe grain harvest failures in the “Lean Years” of the 1690s which led to increased mortality, massive emigration to Ulster and an overall loss of about one-fifth of the population.

Although Scotland’s cost-base, mainly in terms of wages, was lower than England’s, it was feared that wealth would be drawn from Scotland to England

The failure of the Darien scheme in 1700 had consumed about a quarter of Scotland’s liquid capital. Scotland had no standing army and her navy consisted of two frigates. Scotland was poor, relatively backward and divided between Highlands and Lowlands, and suffered the many disadvantages of a semi-autonomous commercial and trading position within the context of the 1603 Union of Crowns in which the more powerful partner, England, was vigorously protective of its own trading and colonial interests.

The brutal fact was that, in an age of rampant mercantilism backed by military and naval power, the Scots could trade overseas only with English acquiescence and with access to English markets and colonies. William Seton of Pitmedden, who represented Aberdeenshire in the last Scottish Parliament of 1703-07, argued that:

“This Nation being Poor and without Force to protect its Commerce, it cannot survive, let alone become richer, ‘till it partake of the Trade and Protection of some powerful Neighbour Nation”

– and the only realistic partner for Scotland was England.

Free trade, of course, cuts both ways. Although Scotland’s cost-base, mainly in terms of wages, was lower than England’s, it was feared that wealth would be drawn from Scotland to England and that Scottish manufactures, which were often of poor quality would be unable to withstand competition from superior English merchandise – superior mainly in the sense that it was improving faster.

In general, the Scottish market accepted poorer, shabbier products than would the English or Continentals. The problem was one of low incomes, a stagnant population and a limited demand for luxury goods which Scots artisans could not produce or not to a competitive standard. Of the twenty five Articles comprising the Treaty of Union, fifteen related to trade and economic issues such as industry and taxation. Scottish interests were protected through reductions in taxes, e.g., on Scottish coal and salt, and various concessions were applied to Scottish exports of herring, beef, pork and grain.

It is often alleged that many of the Scottish parliamentarians who supported the Union did so for a variety of self-interested motives, were bribed and coerced, arms were twisted and so on.

Robert Burns famously wrote:

“Bought and sold for English gold … such a parcel of rogues in a nation”.

This may not have been Rabbie’s most insightful observation and it appeals more to a paranoid mindset than to historical fact. There is little evidence of outright bribery. More significant was a lack of unity amongst the opposition to Union.

In England, the final thrust towards the Union of 1707 came from Whig politicians who realised that, in a united British Parliament, their party would stand to gain from the arrival in London of Scottish MPs, most of whom would be Whigs, thus shifting the (narrow) majority in the House of Commons from Tory to Whig.

The evidence is, in both England and Scotland, of highly sophisticated arguments deployed by mostly conscientious people who voted according to what they perceived to be their best long-term interests.

Having said this, we do not have to go all the way with Adam Smith to argue, as he did, that persons motivated by self-interest may nonetheless serve or further a wider, national interest.

– Next week, Alex Mitchell presents  the third and final part of this informative and fascinating story.