Unconventional Coal Technologies 'Could Blow the Global Carbon Budget'

A climate campaigner holds a sign outside the White House at the Keep it in the Ground Rally on September 15, 2015. (Photo: WildEarth Guardians/flickr/cc)

Unconventional Coal Technologies 'Could Blow the Global Carbon Budget'

 Underground Coal Gasification and Coal Chemicals represent 'not just a crime against our planet, but a crime against humanity'

While tar sands and fracking have been cited frequently for their climate and environmental impacts, a new report puts the spotlight on how two unconventional coal technologies are "a leap in the wrong direction" as they "damage and delay the transition to a low carbon world."

Released Monday by Friends of the Earth International (FOEI), Fueling the Fire: The Chequered History of Underground Coal Gasification and Coal Chemicals Around the World uses case studies from Australia, China, South Africa, the U.S., and U.K. to show how these two technologies are bad news for the climate.

"If exploited these technologies could blow the global carbon budget, and in doing so spell certain catastrophe for our planet," Jagoda Munic, chair of Friends of the Earth International, says in the report's foreword.

"To invest in and open up a new frontier of fossil fuels at this critical stage in the fight against climate change is not just a crime against our planet, but a crime against humanity," she adds.

Explaining Underground Coal Gasification (UCG), which FOEI says "threatens to be a major contributor to climate change," the report states that it "is a technology that gasifies coal seams in situ underground, creating syngas (or synthesis gas)--mainly a mixture of hydrogen, methane, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide--to be used for either electricity production or industrial chemical processes."

There is one commercial UCG plant in the world--in Uzbekistan--while "the last two decades have seen a surge of interest in UCG," including test trials in the U.S. and Canada. It "has been advancing primarily in Australia, South Africa, China and Europe," but already, the verdict on the technology is in, FOEI states:

The development of a UCG industry will emit high levels of CO2 further fueling climate change, at a time when countries should be shifting to low-carbon economies and energy sources. Additionally, UCG's history of groundwater pollution, including the contamination incident in Queensland, Australia, highlight the unacceptable local environmental pollution problems, to say nothing of the problem of dealing with high levels of toxic waste.

Coal Chemicals, meanwhile, involves "turning coal into liquid fuels, Synthetic Natural Gas, and chemical products," and finds itself "predominantly established in China, but there is also development in Australia, South Africa, and the U.S." The report finds that the development of this industry

poses many risks. Mega projects in China suck surrounding ecosystems dry with massive water consumption while yet more coal is mined, processed and transported. Wastes require careful disposal to safeguard the health of the local population and the environment. In terms of climate change, Coal Chemicals emit huge amounts of GHGs that threaten to further destabilise the earth's climate.

Why the interest in these relatively new technologies while the global coal industry is in decline and as the "world has entered decade zero--our last chance of keeping global temperature rise to the internationally recognized limit of 1.5degC"? The report states:

Proponents of UCG and Coal Chemicals argue that these technologies are viable in conjunction with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). However, CCS has failed to get off the ground commercially and technical issues remain. It remains a false solution that risks giving companies and technologies licence to keep polluting, fueling the climate crisis

A press release from the organization sums up some of the report's key findings:

  • Globally, Underground Coal Gasification could dramatically fuel climate change by potentially creating an extra 1650 billion tonnes of CO2-four times the total amount that can be emitted if the world is to avoid catastrophic climate change.
  • Irreversible environmental damage has been done by Linc Energy's recent Underground Coal Gasification experiment in Queensland, Australia, prompting the Queensland government to ban the technology.
  • The U.S. has been the testing ground for UCG experiments that have resulted in groundwater contamination.
  • Coal-to-Chemicals, the process of converting coal into different gases, liquid fuels and chemical products, have devastating impacts on local environments in South Africa and China with their massive water, coal and energy consumption.
  • Sasol's Coal Chemical plants in South Africa every year produces 35 million cubic metres of liquid effluent laden with metals and salts which creates toxic waste dumps, pits, and ponds.

"Unconventional coal is a leap in the wrong direction," stated Lukas Ross, climate and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth U.S., in a media statement. "We don't need dangerous new technologies to keep pollution in business. We need to keep coal in the ground."

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