HL Deb 07 December 1977 vol 387 cc1611-4

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the first Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government why the Department of Energy's first working document for the Energy Commission omits any study of the underground gasification of coal.


My Lords, paragraph 6.19 of the Working Document on Energy Policy—Energy Commission Paper No. 1—states that the National Coal Board are considering the long-term prospects for the conversion of coal in situ following their reappraisal in 1976 of the underground gasification of coal.


My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord for that reply, which shows that as well as I he has read the document, may I ask him whether he is aware, and whether the Energy Commission are aware, of a pilot scheme which was tried out from 1966 to 1969, if my dates are right, at Newton Spinney in Derbyshire and Bayton in Worcestershire, when gasification of coal was tried, as a result of which studies seemed to show that energy could be raised by this means at anything from a farthing in old pence to a penny-halfpenny in old pence per therm cheaper than that which could be obtained from deep-mined coal obtained in the ordinary way?


My Lords, copies of the reappraisal and of the review, both of which the noble Earl and I have read, have been placed in the Library of your Lordships' House. The 1976 report concluded that the cost of producing gas by underground gasification would almost certainly never rival the cost of natural gas, and that while supplies of natural gas were available there were no grounds for recommending the development of the process in the United Kingdom. The 1977 review also concludes that work is not yet at a stage when a decision can be made about underground coal gasification, but suggests that when the results of work in the United States and in Europe are known in two to three years, the position should be clearer.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that the experiments which were conducted in England in the past on the gasification of coal in the small thin seams were absolutely uneconomic? Has the NCB carried out any more research to make economic the gasification of thin seams in coal mines?


My Lords, I think that is a slightly different question which I would rather deal with, if I may, in answer to the noble Earl's next Question.


My Lords, earlier this week, at Question Time, the noble Lord was indicating that we had to look into what would happen when our natural gas supplies ran out. Can the noble Lord tell the House whether the Department of Energy or the Coal Board are looking for the areas where the conditions are right for the underground gasification of coal, because this could save a lot of difficult and dangerous work by men underground?


Yes, certainly, my Lords. The United Kingdom is keeping in touch with R and D work, both in the United States and in Europe, particularly in Belgium and in Germany, where they have difficulties with their deep-mined coal. With regard to policy, I may say that at present we believe that it may be more economic eventually to produce substitute natural gas and liquid fuels by the processing of mined coal, coal brought to the surface, rather than by any in situ conversion. Furthermore, the British Gas Council are in a very strong position for the manufacture of substitute natural gas from mined coal by gasification on the surface rather than underground, through experiments that they have carried out.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some years ago there were very colourful reports of considerable success achieved by the Russians in the underground gasification of coal? Has he been informed as to whether there is any evidence of further progress by that country in this field?


My Lords, there is evidence, yes. There are three underground coal gasification sites reported to be operative in the USSR, two commercially for electricity generation and one as an R and D centre.


My Lords, could my noble friend tell the House whether any steps have been taken for the fluidisation of coal, as distinct from gasification?


Yes, my Lords, and I gave some details to your Lordships yesterday.


My Lords, could the noble Lord tell us whether he thinks that sufficient urgency is being given to this matter, bearing in mind, for example, the rather off-hand way in which it is treated in the first paper of the Energy Commission? Is he also aware that those who are taking an interest in this subject are looking for it, not so much as an alternative to natural gas at present but as a way of improving our energy supplies generally without, as my noble friend said just now, needing to send human beings down to work in these inhuman surroundings?


Yes, my Lords. The position in this country is not as urgent as in the United States where they have not such large supplies of natural gas. We think it better, rather than conducting our own experiments at considerable expenditure, for the next two or three years—no longer—to keep in close touch with experiments in Europe and in the USA and also to pursue other means, some of which I have just described.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the fact that this was one of the problems that was being discussed and argued about in the first Election in which I took part in 1929? Perhaps, in the circumstances, he could bring the matter to the notice of the Energy Commission so that they should speed up their inquiries, because time is running heavily against us.

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