The Public Perceptions of Underground Coal Gasification (UCG): A Pilot Study

TitleThe Public Perceptions of Underground Coal Gasification (UCG): A Pilot Study
Publication TypeTyndall Working Paper
SeriesTyndall Centre Working Papers
Secondary TitleTyndall Centre Working Paper 57
AuthorsShackley, S., S. Mander, and A. Reiche
Year of Publication2004

A pilot study was undertaken from June to November 2003 to explore potential public perceptions of Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) in the United Kingdom. The objectives were to identify the main dangers and objections, and benefits and advantages, of UCG as perceived by members of the public; and to explore what factors, if any, might change public perceptions such that UCG is perceived more or less favourably. A desk-based review of the literature on risk suggests that the local social, cultural and institutional context will have enormous influence on the manner in which the risks and benefits associated with UCG are perceived. A case study of an earlier UCG application in Silverdale (Staffordshire) was undertaken, and it was found that the familiarity of local people with the consequences and legacies of conventional coal mining amplified the perceptions of risk of affected people. As an 'experimental' site, fears abounded concerning potential hazards, without any apparent gains for the local economy being identified. A one day focus group was then held to discuss UCG in more detail. Most of the group had participated 3 months earlier in a 5 week long set of discussions on the capture and storage underground of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion.

The participants of the focus group recognized the potential of UCG as a secure source of energy for the UK in the future, provided that it is safe to humans and the environment and cost-effective. At present there is no clear benefit to the local community where a UCG trial would take place, yet there would be new potential risks to be assessed and lived with. Concerns were expressed about the possible 'uncontrollability' of underground combustion. It was strongly believed that carbon capture and storage (CCS), although not necessarily on site, should be associated with UCG. A preference for connecting UCG with CCS to the hydrogen economy was also expressed, particularly if the local economy and environment could benefit as a consequence. For a trial or commercial application to proceed, the group considered that UCG would have to be part of, and integrated with, wider local development initiatives aimed at creating new employment or improving quality of life. It was felt that all developers, operators and regulators need to work in an open, transparent and consultative mode, providing clear and accurate information. Local inhabitants and stakeholders should, the group felt, be provided with the opportunity to cross-examine the information underlying licences. It was suggested that the technology of UCG should be mastered in a remote site, preferably on land, before applying it in coal seams close to populated area.

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