Queensland Underground Coal Gasification Time Bomb Explodes

A flagship project cited by proponents of Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) in the UK has resulted in criminal charges against the directors of an Australian company. It has taken seven years for the damage to come to light but Linc Energy’s directors now face massive fines and possible jail sentences.

The Queensland Government has uncovered severe contamination surrounding Linc Energy’s UCG test site at Chinchilla. Toxic Syngas from underground fires has caused severe pollution to ground water, soil and air, putting hundreds of square kilometers of prime agricultural land west of Brisbane at risk.

Key findings from the leaked experts’ report indicate that in August 2007, Linc Energy injected air into the coal seam to create a connection between its production and injection bores, this pressure fractured the overlying geology. Once this fracturing had occurred, it was unsafe to ignite the coal seam. The full extent of the contamination is known to be widespread (approximately 320km2). It was caused by the release of numerous contaminants into the environment, including gases, contaminated groundwater, tars, and phenols. The contaminants identified and measured were products or by-products of UCG activities. Contaminants are now trapped in the soil profile and are at risk of release during normal land use including agricultural operations. Contaminants in the overlying geology have and continue to form new contaminants (biogenesis methane), which are ready for future liberation and continued changes to the soil atmosphere. Communities and landholders risk exposure from contaminants re-entering soil as groundwater levels re-establish over time.

Additional unreported incidents at Chinchilla include a fire caused by a clogged pipe, which the company tried to clear by increasing the pressure so much that the rock above it cracked allowing gas to escape and unreported benzene contamination of groundwater at levels more than 60 times higher than allowed (there is no safe level for benzene in groundwater). During heavy rain in 2010, bubbles could be seen “penetrating the surface of the ground above Gasifier 4”, “The bubbles were identified by Linc staff as carbon monoxide”, “Linc staff, including management, were aware of this issue, and staff gave the area where bubbling was occurring the name ‘Mr Bubbles’.” Linc Energy executives are also facing fines in Alaska but are still developing UCG projects in Wyoming, North Dakota, Poland, Vietnam Botswana and South Africa.


Map showing 320 square kilometer Excavation Caution Zone in Queensland, south of Chinchilla (click to enlarge)

Implications for the UK

UCG speculators Cluff Natural Resources and Five Quarter Energy are pushing ahead with plans for pilot projects and production in the UK. The government has granted 27 licences for UCG just offshore, but close to large population centers.

The vast majority of small scale trials of UCG over the last 80 years have invariably resulted in severe water contamination and/or explosions. Both Cluff and Five Quarter deny that UCG is experimental and has a track record of failure. In March this year Five Quarter, which holds 10 UK licences, called opponents of the technology “alarmist” and have threatened a number of organisations and individuals with legal action. In the same month the Chief Operating Officer of Cluff Natural Resources, which holds eight UCG licenses, announced that their UCG plans for the Firth of Forth posed negligible risks.

The 320km2 (10km radius in red) area effected by pollution created around the Linc trial is very significant for UK communities living close to UCG licence areas. Hundreds of thousands of people live within a 10km radius of these sites earmarked for UCG.


10km around Kincardine UCG, Firth of Forth, Cluff Natural Resources


10km around Largo Bay UCG, Fife, Cluff Natural Resources


10km around Methil UCG, Fife, Cluff Natural Resources


10km around Musselburgh UCG, Five Quarter


10km around Solway Firth UCG, Five Quarter


10km around Workington UCG, Cumbria, Cluff Natural Resources


10km around Blythe, Northumberland, Five Quarter


10km around Hartlepool, Teeside, Cluff Natural Resources


10km around Humber Estuary UCG, Clean Coal Ltd.


10km around Dee Estuary, North Wales, Five Quarter


10km around Cromer UCG, East Anglia, Clean Coal Ltd.


10km around Loughor Estuary, South Wales, Cluff Natural Resources


10km around Thames Estuary UCG, Riverside Energy Ltd.

UCG – Time To Get Organised

In simple terms Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) involves setting fire to coal underground. Once alight, the fire is starved of oxygen with the aim of creating synthetic gas (syngas) which can be brought to the surface. This partial burning of the coal happens underground but the process creates toxic and carcinogenic coal tars that pose a significant threat to the environment. At the surface, toxic and explosive gasses emerge at high temperatures mixed with huge volumes of liquid waste (condensate), carbon dioxide and other combustion products from the coal. To produce significant amounts of gas UCG would require multiple drill sites and massive processing facilities located onshore. Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) is a classic example of extreme energy in action. Read more…

If you live in an area threatened by UCG you can download and circulate this Factsheet. If you are interested in taking action in your area see the Get Involved page and contact us if you need any further assistance.


This Map Shows UCG Licence Areas and Companies in the UK


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