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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_coal_gasification. 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.