HL Deb 01 March 2001 vol 622 cc1273-5

Lord Jenkin of Roding asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why methane gas derived from landfill sites counts as part of the renewables obligation for electricity producers while methane gas from abandoned mines does not.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, coalmine methane is a fossil fuel produced in rock strata over millions of years. Methane at landfill sites is produced from recently deposited biodegradable material, and is replaceable within a generation. The statutory definitions of "fossil fuel" and "renewable sources" in the Utilities Act reflect this, and preclude the inclusion of fossil fuel in the renewables obligation.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, at present, out of about 900 abandoned mines, there are only five where operators are harnessing and burning methane gas? As this is a waste product which is over 20 times more damaging to the environment in terms of global warming than carbon dioxide, is there not an overwhelming case for giving operators more incentives to harness and use this noxious and dangerous gas, which at present escapes into the atmosphere?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the noble Lord is right about the harmful effects of coalmine methane. It is some 21 times worse than carbon dioxide. However, it cannot be said to be a renewable source of energy; I agree, therefore, that it cannot come under that category. There is an environmental case for seeing whether there are ways of encouraging greater use of methane by the industry. Indeed, my department and the DETR are examining, with the Association of Coal Mine Methane Operators, ways in which the Government might encourage industry to develop more sites. It may be an area in which the Coalfields Task Force and the Carbon Trust could be helpful.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, would it not be most consistent in terms of energy production, and environmentally sensible, if methane from closed collieries were treated in a similarly advantageous way to methane from landfill sites? It is the same gas; and, as the noble Lord said, it is very noxious.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I must disagree: it is not the same kind of gas. Both come from the bacterial breakdown of organic material, but coalmine methane is produced through carbonisation over millions of years and therefore cannot be treated in terms of renewable energy. If we were to do that, it would be difficult to argue that either coal or natural gas should also not be included as renewable energy. That would clearly be a farcical situation. However, as I said, there are good environmental reasons for examining this area, and that is what we are doing.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the coalfield areas. Are the Government giving special consideration in connection with this issue to stimulating the exploitation of methane from disused mines as a way of bringing more investment and employment into the coalfield areas?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, that is exactly what my department and the DETR are doing. We are examining possible ways of encouraging greater use of methane. The main argument is environmental. At present, there are five plants. The number would have to rise to 300 before it began to make any difference at all in terms of electricity generation.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, has any work been done on recovering methane from farm slurry tanks?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am not aware of any. I shall look into the matter and find out whether such work is being done.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, there is world-wide interest in the technology for using methane from coalmines. Will the Minister accept that if the Government are seen to support that industry in this country it would bring great benefits to the industry as a whole? Therefore, I should be relieved to hear that he is considering the creation of a new category for this operation.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, it is not a question of a different category. We should look at whether there are appropriate incentives for this product. We have major programmes relating to clean coal technology, encouraging its exportation to other parts of the world.

Lord Oxburgh

My Lords, on rigorous scientific criteria about which there is no question, methane from coalmines is a fossil fuel. Accepting that, is the Minister aware that this gas is steadily and continuously diffusing through the ground and leaking into the atmosphere by natural processes'? Is he further aware that methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, but that during the chemical reactions involved in combustion—in burning it and extracting energy from it—it is converted into carbon dioxide and water vapour, which are much less harmful greenhouse gases? Does the Minister agree that this is a rare opportunity both to extract energy and to help the environment, and that it would be desirable to extend favourable tax treatment to endeavours to extract methane from mines?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am indeed aware that methane is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas. One way of dealing with its harmful effects is to use it for the generation of energy. Therefore, as I said, there are strong environmental reasons for doing this, even if in terms of diversity of energy generation the arguments are not very strong.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Germany changed its legislation on 28th March last year to ensure that methane gas from mines could be used towards the renewable objectives of the electricity producers; and that under those circumstances his Answer does not make sense?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, any country is perfectly entitled to do something which is illogical and stupid. That is no reason for this country to follow that particular path.

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