Fancy a century of low-cost, indigenous energy?

Was it only fifty years ago that Paul Ehrlich was warning that fossil fuels would run out in the 1980s, we’d all be starving, life expectancy in the US would be down to 42 years, and world population down to 1.5 billion by 1985?  If I could find his address, I’d send him a copy of Matt Ridley’s excellent book “The Rational Optimist”, which would explain to him quite why there are more of us, and better fed, and richer, than we could have imagined in the 1960s.  And why fossil fuels are still going strong.  They will run out eventually (and we’ll need to husband oil resources as feed-stock rather than burning it), but it’ll be a while yet.  And as I love to quote “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones”.  Probably the fossil fuel age will end when we develop better technologies.  But it’ll be a while yet.

We’ve just been getting used to the idea that there’s an awful lot more gas out there than we’d realised.  New extraction techniques — particularly “fracking” — promise decades, perhaps centuries of supply.  Shale oil will postpone the arrival of “peak oil”, perhaps by quite a long way.

I have taken a considerable interest in energy issues, which are of course inseparable from the climate debate.  I have been greatly aided in this by the European Energy Forum, organised in the European parliament by my good colleague Giles Chichester MEP (SW).  The EEF organises seminars and dinner debates on energy issues.  Yet one promising technology seems to have slipped under my radar.

I saw a report on Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) on Channel Four News last night.  For a quick sketch, try  UCG is a method of recovering combustible gases which can be burned for energy, or used as feed-stocks in the chemical industry.  It is particularly relevant to coal seams that are particularly difficult to mine by conventional means because they are too deep, or under the sea, or otherwise difficult to access.  So this is not primarily a means of exploiting resources currently deemed recoverable.  Rather, it enables us to exploit resources to which we previously had no access at all.

According the news report, there are already some 18 pilot projects in the UK alone, and according to the UK Coal Authority  the UK has extensive scope for developing the resource.  The news report suggested that these resources could power the whole UK economy for more than a hundred years — which probably takes us past the end of the fossil fuel age.  Moreover this technology is (they say) low-cost.

It also has the benefit that it does not require miners to work in difficult and dangerous conditions in deep mines.  When I recently debated the safety of the nuclear industry at Exeter University, I was very struck by the statistic that the conventional coal industry is arguably about a thousand times more dangerous than nuclear.

Trouble is, of course, that the eco-freaks and green zealots are up in arms because this is a fossil fuel technology which generates CO2, although apparently less CO2 than regular coal (but more than an equivalent amount of gas). Of course the industry is mouthing pious platitudes about Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS).  They’re so intimidated by the Green Lobby that they dare not defend UCG without talking CCS, even though there are serious questions whether CCS can be done commercially, and whether the long-term storage of sequestered CO2 is feasible.  But in any case, you can bet that the Chinese and the Indians won’t bother — they’ve got too much sense — so it would be pointless for us to do it by ourselves, and at enormous expense.

There isn’t room on this blog post to summarise the whole of the climate debate, but regular readers will know my view that human activity has no significant effect on climate, and that the small changes we have seen over the last century are entirely consistent with well-established, long-term, natural climate cycles.

So will we seize one of the greatest opportunities for energy security?  Do we transform our economy with affordable indigenous power?  Do we ensure that we (and our children and grandchildren) always have enough affordable energy?  Do we banish fuel poverty, effectively for ever?  Or do we give in to the irrational fears of the doom-mongers?  I know what I’d choose.  But I also know that Chris Huhne (Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, as he’s jokingly called) will instinctively get it wrong.

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13 Responses to Fancy a century of low-cost, indigenous energy?

  1. Mike Stallard says:

    Our current methods of producing all important (heating, lighting, eating) electricity are in need of some positive and sensible thinking.
    So thank you for this excellent piece.
    But please let us allow the experts to extract this new phenomenon and not allow the politicians of any stripe to form another massive “grand projet”. Politicians do not do this well. The quota for gays and women on the management board, the sensible decision to have a health and safety executive committee in oversight and the obligatory use of British Rail in providing the outsourcing followed by the NIMBYs lobbying parliament would scupper the whole thing – just like fracking – from the start.
    I totally agree with you on climate change, by the way.

  2. Thank you, Mr Helmer! I fully agree with your views and those of Mike Stallard, above.

    This is an issue for rational leadership to be applied by the top dogs in the Government, but so is the issue of the likes of the Energy Secretary’s post. Out he should go, since his Ministerial functions are not being usefully fulfilled. Even poor John Prescott was much less of a “wrecker,” tho’ he did soak up expenses and his totemic value to his Party’s support was judged a justification.

    Hopefully, the replacement of Huehne, perhaps with the benefit of Tony Lodge’s, Prof Colin McInness’s or other expert’s advice, and the repeal of the Climate Change Acts would set us on a better course, escaping from the present terrible daftnesses.

    Do you agree? Would any of these suggestions be politically practicable?

  3. John Russell says:

    You don’t get it, Roger. If we release most of the 50+ million-year-old carbon out of the ground and into the atmosphere as CO2, then we can say goodbye to a planet that’s habitable for more than ~1 billion humans; and those that are left will be living just at the ice-free poles. I’m not going to put a times scale on it because there are too many variables, (such as Ehrlich failed to account for) but as we’re going at the moment we’re talking about by ~2100.

    That’s my prediction, which I contend is more valid than yours as it’s based on the science: science like this from NASA. Or do you think they don’t know what they’re talking about?

    Of course something could come out of left field and wean us off our addiction to fossil-fuels; but that would be a gamble, and I’m not a gambling man. Are you?

    • I’m not in favour of buying insurance against risk if the cost of the premium exceeds the value of the risk — which is the conclusion of most environmental economists. There are still many scientists who stand by the old orthodoxy, but the momentum of the argument is clearly with the sceptics, especially when we see how the warmists have lied and cheated and fixed the data to fit their obsession.

    • A. Butcher says:

      what you say is utter tripe !
      and I should know, click my name !

      • John Russell says:

        Ah, I see, you’re a master of tripe.

        Regarding your next comment, which is both ad hominem and off-topic, I would ask Roger kindly to delete it (and by all means delete this one, too.). I am proud of the fact that I am Chairman of a group of companies within Roger’s constituency; not the ageing hippy you probably imagine me to be. As such, and probably like you, I work within the society I live, whilst realising there is probably a better, more environmentally responsible way we could operate. I’m sorry if that’s a problem for you.

    • klem says:

      It amazes me that people still cling to this beleif that the wolrd will end in some cataclismic event because we emitted CO2. People cling to this belief like they would a religious belief. I know some people who actually hope and pray that the next hurricane will cause death and destruction, this is wishful thinking for them, just so they can have the opportunity to continue this belief longer. They actually hope people are killed. What kind of religion is this?

      • John Russell says:

        And it amazes me that people won’t read the science, like that on NASA’s site — or do you think their scientists are driven by a religious belief?

        “Since 2001, 32 national science academies have come together to issue joint declarations confirming anthropogenic global warming, and urging the nations of the world to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.” This quote comes from:

        The suggestion that I “hope people are killed” is despicable. It’s continuing to burn fossil fuels that’s likely to lead to deaths — not my warning of the subsequent consequences.

  4. A. Butcher says:

    Oh, and another thing Mr. Russel, or is it Mr.Harwood ? When I clicked on your name it went to some TV Production house, and there we read about the latest infomercial for…… well I will let readers see what was stated on the website you linked to :

    “Portfolio: Body Shield Pro
    Posted by Max on 15th July 2011

    Body Shield Pro is a 15-minute infomercial from Pitch World, currently running on their TV Shopping channels on BSkyB and FreeSat. The show features two TV presenters and former racing drivers in the shape of Tiff Needell and Penny Mallory. Tiff is well known from the BBC’s ‘Top Gear’ and Channel Five’s ‘Fifth Gear’, while Penny presented ‘driven’ on Channel 4 and ITV’s ‘Used Car Roadshow’.”

    Oh no !!!! Surely you can’t be promotin those horror, doom machines, which belch out the CO2 in vast volumes. Yes the “Body Sheild Pro” will ensure your old gas belching car will not rust away for many years to come. Get off your high horse and see the reality !

  5. The fact is that you can imagine a great number of global catastrophe scenarios (where would science-fiction be without them?), any of which could destroy humanity. An obvious one is an asteroid impact. We could decide to spend trillions of dollars (or euros, if they still exist) on preparing to defend ourselves. But politicians have to balance the importance of protecting our grandchildren against vanishingly unlikely catastrophes, and on the other hand, doing what is affordable. I have followed the climate debate over many years, and I agree with Lord Lawson: I doubt whether there is any issue here at all, but if there is, the rational approach is monitoring and adaptation, not massively expensive mitigation attenpts which are clearly doomed to fail (remember Durban) and probably unnecessary.

    • Mike Stallard says:

      What about population spinning out of control?
      What about Iran starting a nuclear holocaust?
      Where is all the food going to come from to feed the billions of people (who all spend a lot of time breeding too) on earth over the next century?
      What about the vulnerability of our fragile cities – water, electricity, sewage, transport – to terrorism and nuclear attack?

      I could go on………
      Doesn’t anyone care?

      • klem says:

        “What about population spinning out of control?” Do you mean spinning higher or lower?

        “What about Iran starting a nuclear holocaust?” What about the other eight nuclear powers starting a nuclear holocaust?

        “Where is all the food going to come from to feed the billions of people.. over the next century?” Farms.

        “What about the vulnerability of our fragile cities – water, electricity, sewage, transport – to terrorism and nuclear attack?” We’ll have to deal with it, we’ll do the best we can.

        I refuse to live in a state of fear. I used to listen to the MSM but now I understand that governments and media work together to keep everyone afraid. I refuse to fall for that now.

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