A major new source of clean energy right on our doorstep under the North Sea or a real environmental threat based on technology that has led to court cases in Australia?
As a meeting in Alnwick on plans for large-scale gas extraction off the Northumberland coast heard this week, the real answer is neither.
The well-attended event on Tuesday night was organised by the town’s Friends of the Earth group to find out more about proposals for the extraction of unconventional gas from below the sea by Newcastle-based Five-Quarter.
The company and its goals have attracted headlines in the North East, but the meeting, addressed by the company’s Professor Paul Younger and Simon Bowens, North East campaigner for Friends of the Earth, heard more about what its Deep Gas Winning (DGW) technology entails.
The process turns coal and the surrounding rocks directly into gas underground, but unlike fracking, which is courting controversy, no chemicals go into the ground – only steam and oxygen.
Professor Younger was keen to distinguish between their methods and underground coal gasification (UCG), saying that whereas UCG takes place at shallow depths on land using lots of pipework and long chambers, DGW is under the sea at great depth in much smaller, finite chambers. The boreholes are just nine inches in diameter.
However, Mr Bowens referred to the legal cases brought against UCG firms in Australia and added: “There are differences, I accept, between what Five-Quarter do and traditional UCG, but is this a risk you are happy to live with in your community?”
One of the other key issues that Professor Younger wanted to get across was that Five-Quarter plans to use the gas as a feedstock for the chemical industry, primarily on Teesside, not for generating electricity.
And this, he said, is at the heart of what Five-Quarter is doing it for; creating jobs and boosting the North East economy. Professor Younger said that over the next five years, about 400 jobs would be created plus another 200 to 300 during the construction phase for the plant. No decision has been made on its location yet, but south-east Northumberland has been suggested.
l For more on the plans and their potential environmental impact, see next week’s Gazette.