New Energy Frontier: Drilling Into Coal for Gas

New Energy Frontier: Drilling Into Coal for Gas

New Energy Frontier: Drilling Into Coal for Gas

April 08, 2014

Underground coal gasification proposals ignite debate, from Wales to Wyoming.

With their sights on stores of low-grade coal beneath the coasts of England, the ranches of Wyoming, and the fields of Inner Mongolia, entrepreneurs around the world are touting the promise of yet another “unconventional” approach to energy extraction.

The technique resembles the hydraulic fracturing technology that has produced an oil and gas boom across North America.

The key element in this process, however, is not water. It’s fire.

Underground Coal Gasification (UCG)—an old idea once embraced by Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin—is gaining new enthusiasts who say it can transform abundant but difficult-to-mine coal reserves into a cleaner fuel: synthetic natural gas. Instead of mining the coal, the companies propose to drill into the coal seam, ignite it, and capture the “syngas”—a combination of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and methane—produced by the oxidation underground.

The syngas could be used just like natural gas to produce power, making it a potential solution for China, seeking an alternative to the coal-fired electricity that chokes its cities, and for Europe, eager to replace its own declining North Sea natural gas stores and reduce reliance on Russian imports.

“We are potentially talking about a second North Sea here (in terms of gas production from coal),” said Algy Cluff, the wealthy, septuagenarian British businessman who helped pioneer the North Sea oil fields in the early 1970s. Cluff Natural Resources is leading an effort in the United Kingdom to apply UCG to the country’s still-vast coal reserves. “It’s far too big an opportunity for government and energy majors to ignore,” he said.

Critics worry about the environmental consequences, including the potential for groundwater contamination, sinkholes and other types of subsidence, and underground fire. Also, greenhouse gas emissions would be significant unless steps were taken to integrate carbon capture and storage into UCG at the extraction site.

Advocates for the process insist that environmental concerns can be addressed. And systems for carbon capture and storage can be much more efficiently integrated into UCG site than into coal-fired power plants, they argue.

At the moment, though, none of the countries exploring UCG have policies in place that would force operators to take on the added expense of carbon capture. As with other types of unconventional energy development—oil sands, fracking, deepwater exploration—growing energy demand is propelling nations into the complexities and risks of new fossil fuel extraction techniques far more quickly than they are adopting policies to address the resulting carbon emissions…

Continue reading the National Geographic article by Thomas K. Grose here: