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Clean Coal

Volume 541: debated on Tuesday 28 February 2012

Ms Osborne, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship. I am pleased to see so many of my colleagues attending a debate on an important subject: the economic potential of clean coal.

As a child in the 1970s I used the phrase, “taking coals to Newcastle”, to describe the silliest, most useless activity that could possibly be undertaken. I never really thought about the words behind the phrase, of course, except to note that it referred to Newcastle, the city in which I lived and which had been exporting coal since the 13th century. The region powered Britain’s industrial revolution. Recently, when I visited the port of Tyne and saw huge ships unloading coal, the full realisation of the extraordinary change in our relationship to coal was forced on me. Three million tonnes of coal per year are coming up the Tyne, instead of going down and out to the wider world. We are now importing millions of tonnes of coal per year to Newcastle and the same is true for Great Britain, once described as an island built on coal.

According to the Library, in 1920 there were 1.25 million miners in the UK. Today, the UK mining industry provides just over 6,000 jobs directly and supports a similar number in coal power stations and coal transportation, but demand for coal has not fallen to the extent that those figures might imply. In addition to the increased productivity of coal miners, we also need huge levels of imports to satisfy demand. In 2010, we produced 18.4 million tonnes of coal to meet demand of 51.4 million tonnes. What makes that all the stranger is that the UK has thousands of billions of tonnes of coal reserves, offshore and onshore.

Five Quarter, a company spun out of Newcastle university, has licences from the Coal Authority to exploit 2 billion tonnes off the Northumberland coast. Using new technologies and processes, in energy terms that is equivalent to 11 billion barrels of oil; and that is just one company. Yet in 2010 we imported 26.5 million tonnes of coal.

Let us be clear that by importing so much coal we are not reducing the global carbon footprint or improving the safety of mining. Nearly 10 million tonnes of coal a year is imported from Russia. Despite having improved somewhat in recent years, Russia’s mining safety record is still poor, although it is better than China’s. In the UK, we suffered the terrible tragedies of three mining deaths in 2010, the highest for several years. In the same year, 135 Russian miners died at work, including 66 in one explosion.

I applied for this debate because I believe there could be huge potential in exploiting the vast reserves of coal beneath our feet, and I am concerned that the Government are not doing all they can to realise that potential. I should be grateful to hear the Minister’s views on why we import so much coal when we have such vast reserves.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining this important debate and I welcome her remarks. Will she push the Minister a little bit on clean coal, recognising that there are 300 years of energy need beneath our feet? The hon. Lady touched on that in her opening remarks.

I will come to that point. I shall consider it a pleasure to push the Minister, just as the hon. Gentleman describes.

Coal importation does not raise the same issues as gas importation. In terms of energy security, there is no vulnerable single coal pipeline and there is a wider supplier base and a more competitive market for coal, but transporting millions of tonnes of carbon around the world is hardly green and, more importantly, there is in this country the budding technical knowledge to exploit coal in a cleaner way than our competitors.

The first industrial revolution was fuelled by coal and we are now having to deal with the consequences in the form of climate change. Clean coal, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is any technology that reduces harmful emissions from burning coal or avoids the need for burning coal altogether to generate electricity in a more sustainable manner.

Carbon capture and storage and underground coal gasification are two areas where the UK has the opportunity to become a world-beater in clean energy production, but we cannot wait for ever. Underground coal gasification is the gasification of a deep coal seam to convert coal to a high energy synthetic gas, which goes by the lovely name of syngas. Both the technology and the gas produced are relatively clean, compared to coal-fired generation and surface mining.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing the matter to this Chamber.

The potential for clean coal is estimated between £2 billion and £4 billion, perhaps with some 60,000 jobs as well. Does the hon. Lady feel that we should be embracing the technology in totality, especially as oil has reached its highest price in the past two years?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the important economic potential of clean coal, especially at a time of high energy prices. I shall mention that.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the north-east region could play a tremendous role in terms of the abundant reserves off its coast, from Durham to the top end of the north-east coast, underground coal gasification and deep-mined coal reserves? Does she agree that we should consider every opportunity to exploit that resource and, in the meantime, create thousands of what we would describe as clean jobs—clean energy jobs—in our region, which has suffered greatly as a result of the closure of the coal industry and shipbuilding?

My hon. Friend has a huge amount of experience in coal, to which I pay tribute. He raises important points about the north-east, with regard to our huge coal reserves, which he rightly mentioned, and the economic potential of coal, which I will say a little more about. I thank him for his intervention.

Like all new exciting, but as yet untried, technologies, carbon capture and storage and underground coal gasification require research, analysis and trialling to understand the risks, if any, and whether and how they might be overcome. However, I regret that I am yet to be convinced that the Government are fully committed to enabling the potential of clean coal technologies to meet our energy needs in the medium and long term and to bring to the region and the country the kind of jobs my hon. Friend has mentioned. The Carbon Capture and Storage Association estimates that by 2025 the market for clean coal could be worth £10 billion a year to the UK, with more than 50,000 quality jobs.

I agree with the hon. Lady’s remarks on clean coal. She mentioned 2025, which might be a realistic time for this technology to come in, because it is unproven. Does she acknowledge an issue that all hon. Members know about, given the dependence of regions on coal, which is that the previous Government signed the EU large combustion plant directive, which mandated that, by 2015, five of our biggest coal stations will come off-stream, way in advance of any realistic prospect of CCS working? I hope, eventually, that that technology will work.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports clean coal technologies. The previous Government made huge efforts to ensure that we were on track for sustainable energy to meet the appropriate emissions concerns. I will mention the timetable for carbon capture and storage, on which, as he rightly says, current coal generation capacity is dependent.

We have already seen how the Department’s muddled messages have damaged the solar industry and, this week, the wind industry, so it is now vital for the Government to set out a sufficiently detailed and long-term ambition for clean coal technologies in the UK, because the prize in terms of jobs and energy security is far too important for us to fumble.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree that terminology is important? Using the words “renewable energy” all the time, rather than “low-carbon energy”, can muddle the debate. Effective clean technology, should it be proved to work, will be low-carbon energy, and that is the sort of descriptor we should be using, rather than “renewable”.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He is right that in meeting the emissions targets we have set ourselves, “low carbon” is a key term, rather than “renewables”. Low-carbon energy can be a transition to a future that might, in the longer term, be entirely based on renewables as differently based forms of energy run out.

My concern is the real possibility that if the UK does not act now, companies will not invest here; they will reprioritise their investments away from carbon capture and storage and away from the UK. The economic potential of clean coal extends further than the direct jobs created in the industry and the supply chain. As has been mentioned, it could bridge the gap to longer-term renewable energy and could keep energy costs down in the short and medium term, which will be a better deal for home consumers and for industry. In the north-east, that is particularly important, because we have many world-leading but energy-intensive industries such as chemical processing. Developing integrated clean coal processes has the potential to supply the energy needs of those important sectors in the north-east and elsewhere.

I stress the huge potential of clean coal. Areas such as Ashford, which I represent, have powered the UK before and would like to power it again, so I thank my hon. Friend for the debate and for pressing the Minister.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of clean coal and clean coal technologies to the north-east and to many regions in the UK, including the north-west.

Last year, in response to an oral question, the Minister told me:

“The Government recognise the potential of underground coal gasification, but the technology is still in its early stages...Our view is that as a carbon capture option it is not a priority to pursue at present. The Coal Authority has lead responsibility, as the freehold owner of our national coal resource, and we continue to monitor developments in the sector.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2011; Vol. 530, c. 1649.]

At a subsequent meeting, in January, the Minister and his officials appeared somewhat more positive and certainly supportive of carbon capture more generally. I was not filled with confidence, however, to learn that the DECC policy team that deals with clean coal is called the coal liabilities team. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but can the Department champion the potential of clean coal rather than the legacy of the past?

DECC’s continued delay played a significant part in the failure of the Longannet CCS demonstration project in 2010. In November last year, the Department promised that the money would be reallocated to other CCS projects, but in the autumn statement, the Treasury raided the CCS fund to spend on other projects. Coal-burning power stations still provide 28% of our electricity, rising to 50% in times of high demand. Many coal-fired stations are dependent on testing the viability of retrofitting those new technologies so as to be able to continue production past 2015, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat).

Globally, China mines three times as much coal as any other country, or more than 3,000 million tonnes of coal in 2010.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. She mentioned China, and it is important for us to look at what is happening on carbon emissions not only regionally and nationally but internationally. I was lucky enough to be in China only two weeks ago, with the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change. The Chinese put coal production in 2010 at 3.24 billion tonnes; they forecast 3.9 billion or almost 4 billion tonnes of coal per year by 2020, and then they are looking to reduce production to a steady output of around 2 billion tonnes by 2050. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is really up to us to use our engineering and manufacturing skills to get carbon capture and storage on line in the UK, giving us a great opportunity to export our manufacturing to the likes of China, which will make a huge difference overall?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We might disagree about the speed at which the new technologies can be brought on line—whether 2015 or 2020—but what is absolutely clear is that the rest of the world is burning coal and that the new technologies will be needed to ensure that the energy required in the world does not bring about grossly increased emissions. We have an opportunity to be at the forefront of a new and expanding market. It could be a huge new market, but I fear that we might let it pass by without fully understanding it.

I welcome the recent announcement from DECC that takes us a step closer to the first CCS commercial demonstration project; it is long overdue. We are now told, however, that the demonstration will take between four and eight years. Does the Minister not recognise the importance of being ahead of the curve in demonstrating and scaling such technology? Instead of a programme of support and a stable policy environment from the Government, we continue to see confusion. I am sure the Minister agrees that a proper energy policy requires security and a diverse source of supply. How can he reassure the House that he is doing everything to ensure that we capture the benefits of clean coal? We also need certainty. What assessment have the Government made of the economic potential for clean coal, and when will he be in a position to make a long-term decision on whether the Government will support it?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on getting the debate, because it is timely.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and in opposition, we can all have a go at what the Government did or did not do in the ’80s or ’90s. Everyone would agree that, if anything, the Government went too far in closing down the coal industry, which could still have been producing for this country today, but the truth is that the Labour Government also did not do particularly well by the coal industry.

Until the petrol price increase of 2007 and 2008, coal was a dirty word in this place. Thankfully, finally, in those years, because of the huge, uncontrollable expansion in the cost of petrol, people began to realise that we had to look for alternatives. The alternative could and should be coal, but since those days, we have become bogged down in discussions about where we go with it. There was a bidding process in Europe and in this country, but we have seen nothing but reversals, with projects at Hatfield, Longannet and Kingsnorth all going into reverse and being dropped. If possible—I am very aware of the limited time that the Minister has—can he tell us exactly where we are with the CCS process? Will we see anything done in the near or longer term? The debate has been going on for a long time, and we have had, in effect, little if any progress.

In particular, the underground gasification of coal is a huge issue and is being developed strongly in our region by Newcastle university and the Ramsay project. The technology was proven more than a century ago to access reserves of coal way beyond anything that has ever been reached by conventional mining, whether in the last 10 years or the last 1,000 years. Coal that is sometimes thousands of metres deep and cannot be accessed by humans, can be accessed by machinery, and that should be promoted. The last Government agreed that a strategic environmental assessment would be carried out off the Northumberland coast. Has that happened? If not, will it happen? If so, when will it happen?

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Osborne. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing this debate. She has raised some important issues. I am sorry that, to make a political point, she distorted the situation, but I will clarify how we are trying to take forward carbon capture and storage particularly, to ensure that Britain can lead global developments in the sector.

Let me say at the outset that we agree absolutely with the hon. Lady about the important role that coal can continue to make. We want it to have a significant role in our energy infrastructure for many years to come. It is valued partly because of its flexibility, and as we move to inevitably more intermittent generation from all sorts of renewables, the flexibility, or dispatchability, of the coal sector is valuable indeed. We recognise that to secure that long-term future, we must deal with carbon emissions. The clean coal technologies—the hon. Lady outlined two of them—can help to ensure that coal has a chance to play an important role in our energy mix.

We are keen to take CCS forward with all speed. The Department has created a new division called the office of carbon capture and storage. It is not part of the old coal liabilities group, which is dealing with the historic legacies of the mining industry, but a new dynamic team focused purely on developing clean coal technologies. I hope that the hon. Lady recognises that in our message to the outside world we are already doing a great deal to signal a step change.

The hon. Lady referred to coal production and the volume of imports. In 2010, which is the last year for which we have full figures, domestic production was nearly 18 million tonnes from 16 underground and 35 surface mines, employing just over 6,000 people. We have seen a significant drop in imports in recent years, because of a range of factors, from 38 million tonnes in 2009 to 27 million tonnes, a drop of 31%, by 2010. There is a range of reasons for that, including pricing issues—it may sometimes be cheaper to import coal—but often the reason is the sulphurous content and other issues that are important in combustion uses for the different types of coal. Those are commercial decisions, but I want to ensure that we create a long-term viable future for the UK coalmining industry, and we want as much coal as possible to be provided from domestic sources.

On carbon capture and storage, the hon. Lady talked about confusion. At a CCS conference yesterday, Jeff Chapman, who heads the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, used the word “tremendous” to describe the Government’s position. He said that he was encouraged by the speed at which we are trying to move forward and our dynamism and much more comprehensive approach.

Last year, we had to accept reluctantly that the Longannet project would not work and that we could not get the 300 MW CCS output that we wanted for $1 billion. Some aspects of the old competition were part of that process. It ruled out some of the pre-combustion technologies that we believe have a significant role to play and oxy-fuel combustion, which is another technology that could be significant. It did not take account of the £100 million cost involved in putting in place the flue gas desulphurisation technology that an old plant needs to give it a longer-term future.

Since pulling back from that project, we have sought to put in place a new one and a new competition that is much more all-embracing. It will give the industry opportunities to identify more projects, and greater scope for collaboration between different industrial partners in that process. It will also provide the opportunity to find out whether we can use the funding to support infrastructure development. For example, would putting in place large, over-sized pipelines provide the opportunity for an industry to be created, rather than a few pilot projects?

Our ambition has moved on. It is not just about how to put a few projects in place, but about how to create an industry that is viable and competitive in the 2020s. That is why there is a real sense of excitement. There were 200 people at the CCS conference yesterday. Two hundred businesses attended an industry day last week, and 150 attended a previous one before Christmas. People around the world who know about the technology are looking at the United Kingdom as one of the places where they can take it forward.

We still have the £1 billion. The hon. Lady is wrong in saying that it has been raided. The Treasury said that we do not now expect it to be used in the current spending round, but it is still available, and if projects come forward more quickly, they can access it.

Is the Minister saying that the £1 billion is available to be spent in this period of the spending review?

We think it unlikely that anyone could come forward for £1 billion in this spending round, but we have said that it is still available when it is needed. The likely expectation is that it has been knocked back to the next spending round, but the commitment remains.

I understand that I must be brief. If we are to reduce emissions by 8% from 1990 levels, when would CCS have to have proven itself and to be operational?

The hon. Gentleman speaks with tremendous authority on these issues. We want a viable industry that is cost competitive with other low-carbon sources of electricity generation in the 2020s. We want the project work to be done now, and we are looking at a range of technologies and their contribution.

We have £1 billion of up-front funding. We want to run the project so that it links in with European funding— the new entrant reserve 300 funding—so that that can also be accessed. We have allocated £125 million for research and development, which is on top of that. Our electricity market reform measures are considering a range of other factors that can be used to incentivise long-term investment in full-scale plant. I hope that I can reassure the hon. Lady that we are moving ahead with tremendous speed. During the next few weeks, we will launch the competition with a view to deciding how to select the best companies and the best projects as soon as possible.

The hon. Lady referred to underground coal gasification, and I was grateful to her and the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) for bringing representatives from Newcastle university to see me at the end of last year to talk through some of the issues. Underground coal gasification is a fledgling industry so far and has yet to be proven in the United Kingdom, but there is increasing interest in its potential. It has been suggested, as the hon. Lady did today, that it could be linked with carbon capture and storage, although that concept is still at an early stage of development and a lot more work will need to be done on the process. I do not want to go into the technology, but we think it may be a significant opportunity to enable us to access the extensive coal resources that remain in the United Kingdom. They are unlikely to be exploited by conventional mining, as the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) said, and we must use different technologies to access the very deep mines, which cannot be done by men and women working in them.

As with any activity involving underground coal, potential underground coal gasification operators would have to obtain a lease and a licence from the Coal Authority. It is likely that the UCG process would also release native methane, which would require a licence from Department of Energy and Climate Change under petroleum legislation. However, given the incidental nature of any natural gas release, the Department will seek to minimise any administrative burdens in that respect.

To be acceptable in the United Kingdom, operators must be able to demonstrate that they employ processes that are sound from the environmental control perspective. A great deal of evidence has been submitted about this, and we look forward to working closely with the hon. Lady and her colleagues at Newcastle university to try to take the matter forward. She will be aware that the Coal Authority has issued 18 conditional licences, paving the way for potential exploitation of coal through UCG. I will follow the progress of the Newcastle team and other conditional licences with great interest.

I hope that in that brief response I have been able to re-emphasise our commitment to clean coal technologies and their contribution, and I hope that that strong message will go back to the communities that the hon. Lady and her colleagues represent.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.