A sustainable energy firm has hit out the ‘alarmist’ and ‘misinformed’ claims against it as it pulls together the final strings of the financial package designed to create a major multi-billion pound new North East industry. Peter McCusker reports.
Five-Quarter Energy boss Harry Bradbury pulls no punches on describing a near-9,000 signature petition against the company’s proposals to harness the trillion tonnes of coal lying off the North East coastline.
“The wording of this petition is misinformed and scientifically inaccurate. It is scientific nonsense, high on emotion and absent of facts,” he said.
“It is alarmist. The petition makes unsubstantiated claims which have no bearing on the objectives or programme for Five-Quarter.”
Five-Quarter is aiming to build a new North East industry accessing the North Sea’s extensive underwater coal reserves – which have enough energy to power the world for 50 years.
With Government financial support, the company hopes to begin work this year on a £500m power plant with the eventual aim of building a new, sustainable industry creating hundreds of new North East jobs.
Known as Deep Gas Winning, the process involves gasifying seams of coal, thousands of feet under the sea, by delivering steam and oxygen through a six-inch diameter borehole from a surface drilling platform.
The process leads to the release of a highly-calorific syngas, which can be brought to the surface and processed in a new £500m plant for power generation, or as a feedstock for energy-intensive industries such as those on Teesside.
The syngas also consists of carbon dioxide, one of the most potent greenhouse gases and the proposals include facilities to capture this and then pump it out for storage under the sea.
The petition against the proposals launched by a North East campaigner has garnered 8,823 signatures on the London-based 38 Degrees campaigning website.
Dubbed ‘Hands of Our Coastline’, it claims Five-Quarter want to use an ‘experimental’ process ‘to squeeze out the remaining drops of coal’.
It claims there has been ‘no local consultation’ that it ‘involves setting fire to underground coal’ and ‘fracking’.
It then makes claims about the track record of the process of Deep Gas Winning (a refinement on underground coal gasification) and questions the plausibility of the proposed carbon capture and storage facility.
It concludes: “Surely it would be better to use renewables and not produce the CO2 in the first place?”
Mr Bradbury said: “Frankly, had we seen this petition and knew nothing else, we might have been inclined to sign it ourselves. We entirely agree with the statement ‘we don’t want our coastlines to die’. We have no issue with emotion, except when it is presented as facts; in this case it is simply mischief.
“No one associated with this petition has ever contacted Five-Quarter. All MPs in our region are fully aware of our activities; none have expressed opposition.
“We have consulted widely with local councils, politicians and the general public for the past five years. Our public consultation is an ongoing process.”
About its technology Mr Bradbury was unequivocal.
“Five-Quarter is not running experiments – the initial technology roll out uses technology tested over 15 years with five years of Australian Government monitored trials using expert witnesses, the results of which have been that the follow-on commercial programme has full Government approval.
“We do not set fire to coal underground, which would only create waste gas and we do not do fracking.
“Our interests lie in sophisticated, subsea chemical engineering, using only steam and limited oxygen to achieve the right conditions to extract gas which is bound to coal particles on the one hand and the conversion of coal particles to gas on the other. Chemically, the process is known as controlled partial oxidation.”
He continued: “The petition sneers at the potential use of carbon capture and storage (CCS); regarding this as an untried activity and strongly implying that it too is a dangerous pursuit with negative environmental consequences.
“The reality is that our chemicals industry has undertaken carbon capture for 50 years. Our petroleum industry has successfully undertaken geological storage of carbon deep under the North Sea for the past 15 years. And the world community recognizes the importance of a future in which CCS is employed extensively.”
The UK currently has two CCS trials under way and full capture plants have been developed in Canada and USA.
Then moving on to the petition’s final point on renewables Mr Bradbury, who founded one of Britain’s largest and most successful renewable hydrogen fuel cell companies, Intelligent Energy PLC, again pulls no punches.
“The assertion made in the petition that we should use renewables instead is a complete fallacy. (See panel)
“When such assertions are made, the term renewables normally refers to the existing mainstream activities in solar and wind production.
“These activities are a tiny fraction of our existing energy mix. Moreover, the end point for their use is exclusively to produce electricity.
“Electricity - and the well-worn phrase of ‘the need to keep the lights on’ - is nowadays used by many as synonymous with energy. In fact, electricity is only around 18% of our total energy demand in UK today. Heating, transport fuels and industrial raw materials represent a far greater percentage.”
A spokesperson for 38 Degrees said the Hands of Our Coastline petition had been generated by one of its users, and that it has no control of the content. However it said it would look into Five-Quarter’s concerns and consult with the petition creator.
The UK Treasury has signalled out the Five-Quarter development for a £1bn debt guarantee in its infrastructure fund programme, alongside huge projects such as EDF Energy’s new £16bn nuclear plants at Hinkley Point Somerset.
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Industry needs fossil fuels
At a time when the fossil fuel industry is under growing pressure from environmental lobbies, Five-Quarter boss Harry Bradbury outlined their importance to the North East and global economy.
He said the arguments for a solely renewables future only plays into the hands of shareholders in renewables companies, who will benefit from greater subsidies.
“The reality on the ground is that our chemical and process industries, which employ tens of thousands in Teesside, which represent one of Britain’s main strategic industries, one of Britain’s top export earners, the precursor to many other manufacturing activities in aerospace, plastics, adhesives, automotive and pharmaceuticals - to name a few - is under threat.
“This industry is under threat because the US has already developed unconventional gas (in the teeth of vocal opposition from a minority eco-lobby), such that nowadays their electricity and gas prices have more than halved, their greenhouse gas emissions have been dramatically reduced and their manufacturing competitiveness has been significantly increased.
“Energy prices in US are now four times lower than Europe and six times lower than Asia.”
Mr Bradbury says this is ‘unsustainable’ for our industry and that the multinationals, which dominate the sector, will simply up-stick and move elsewhere.
Many chemical and process industries have already re-located to the US and emerging economies to take advantage of lower feedstocks and labour costs.
He continued: “If Britain does nothing to develop its indigenous unconventional gas, especially offshore, our process and manufacturing industries cannot compete with elsewhere. Therefore they will seek to be elsewhere.
“Of course local companies can produce local solutions from low volume biomass, for example. But big industry cannot presently achieve output targets this way and can’t do it without making themselves even more uncompetitive in absorbing even higher costs.
“We can of course continue to rely on massive imports of gas from places like Russia and Qatar. Given the possibility of indigenous supply, does anyone seriously suggest that we place our faith, seek to secure our future and rely on low costs from benevolent foreign suppliers? Really?
“And even if we were so gullible, we are turning a blind eye to the greater environmental emissions created by such a long transport and import system, rather than actually solving the problem. Do we really see this as responsible behaviour?
“So if the whole purpose of this petition is as part of an anti-fossil fuels stance, it is entirely ill-founded. And those who continue to make such arguments are either entirely disingenuous or completely unknowing about the reality on the ground.
“The truth of the matter is that we need both renewables (of all types) and we will continue to need fossil fuels, especially gas.”
Friends of the Earth is also campaigning against the Five-Quarter proposals, saying it objects to the development of new ways of extracting fossil fuels.
However Simon Bullock, a climate change spokesman for the lobby group, acknowledged Mr Bradbury’s concerns on the impacts decarbonisation policies will have on industry.
He said: “We believe the power, transport and heating sectors can be decarbonised by 2030, but our process industries are reliant on fossil fuels and the loss of these would cause economic harm to the UK.
“We would like to see a decarbonisation target of 2050 for the process, aviation and agricultural industries. We do not want to see UK industry shut down. We are not anti-industry.”