CONTROVERSIAL plans to set fire to underground coal off the coast of Hartlepool and East Durham to produce gas have sparked fears of tremors and contamination.
The Government has granted conditional licences nationwide for companies to carry out exploratory works to see whether underground coal gasification (UCG) is viable.
Two are pending approval off the Hartlepool and East Durham coast where there is to an abundance of coal.
The process involves setting fire to offshore coal underground, partially burning it and extracting a synthetic gas, made of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane.
But critics and environmental campaigners claim the process poses as great an environmental risk as fracking, where water and sand is used for hydraulic fracturing of impermeable rocks – which sparked protests nationwide.
Campaigners are battling to block any UCG going ahead, saying previous attempts have resulted in explosions, which can also cause tremors.
Another major concern is massive contamination from highly toxic chemicals, leading to abandonment of testing in other areas and the process already being banned in Queensland, Australia.
They say the drilling of wells to set fire to the coal will also be detrimental on the landscape.
Critics have questioned whether there would be any benefits of such a process.
A meeting organised by members of the national Frack Off group was held in Hartlepool last Thursday night to inform people about concerns about UCG.
Brighton-based members of the group held the meeting at The People’s Centre, in Raby Road, and members of Frack Free Cleveland also attended.
The message was that communities should unite to fight any plans for UCG and they would help empower them.
But Hartlepool MP Iain Wright has questioned whether the venture will go ahead at all.
He said: “This technology is not feasible yet, it’s an emerging technology that would need to be tested very robustly.
“Health and safety would need to be a primary concern.”
Easington MP Grahame Morris has written to Energy Minister Michael Fallon asking about the potential environmental impact and also raised the issue in Parliament last week.
Mr Morris said: “While I welcome investment, I do have reservations over the benefits of UCG, as well as having concerns over the associated risks.
“UCG is an unproven technology and previous trials have been cancelled due to safety concerns and environmental damage.
“I want assurances about the financial benefits of UCG. The Government have spent billions of pounds of taxpayer’s money in an attempt to develop the UCG industry, yet it is private companies that stand to profit.
“The Durham Coalfield once employed hundreds of thousands and supported entire communities, but UCG might only employ a limited number of people and the spoils of Easington’s natural resources will instead enrich a small number of private companies.
“I have written to Government Ministers in the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) seeking assurances that UCG is safe for Easington and that our community will benefit.”
Before any work can be done, approval would be needed from local authorities, landowners, the Crown Estate and the Environment Agency.
A DECC spokeswoman said: “All current Underground Coal Gasification licences are conditional.
“No underground coal gasification operations can take place until the licensee has obtained all necessary rights and permits, including environmental permission and the consent of the Health and Safety Executive.”
To find out more about UCG email: firstname.lastname@example.org