Friday, May 16, 2014

Hugely misleading item on the BBC site: "UK's COAL (!) will have gone in 5 years, along with gas and oil".

Yes, what an extraordinary headline, with no qualification whatsoever in the body of the article.

 (Update: Sat 17 May: the story has now had a complete makeover, the title now being The UK "needs more home-grown energy").

 Britain especially its coastal  waters have underlying seams of coal that are reckoned could last for decades, centuries even.  .No, I am not talking about coal that is inaccessible by present technology.. Present physical extraction, i.e. conventional mining,  has long extended out under the continental shelf, as seen from this upbeat assessment in 2012.

Extract from the above Telegraph article:

Yet the Firth of Forth has deep and abundant coal seams that are only hundreds of yards from the refinery, offshore.
The coal lies around our shores; billions and billions of tonnes of coal from Swansea to Whitehaven and from the Firth of Forth to Lincolnshire.
That coal is not only there but, thanks to the astonishing evolution of horizontal oil drilling technology, it can also be cheaply, quickly and safely converted into gas and piped ashore.
Drilling for oil and gas in the North Sea now is not only exorbitantly expensive, but the odds against any commercial discovery are lengthening to unacceptable levels.
Yet our coal and its characteristics are known, as a result of the former National Coal Board’s exhaustive attempts to mine coal offshore from the old collieries of Durham and Cumbria. Indeed, some of the Durham pits went eight miles out under the North Sea.
The process of Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) requires no new technology and there is practically no exploration risk, thanks to detailed geology reports from the old NCB. [It involves injecting oxygen or steam into unworked coal underground to release gas.]
It is possible to drill horizontally from land into the North Sea and vertically into the coal seam, which will be at depths of between 300 metres and a kilometre and beneath impermeable rock.
The scale of the reserves is remarkable: 2bn tonnes of coal, of which half may be amenable to gasification, is equivalent in oil terms to 4bn barrels of oil – the size of a Middle Eastern oil field.

So, apart from huge unmined coal reservesthe technology also exists for horizontal drilling, and GASIFICATION in situ, the latter achieved by injection of oxygen or steam.

Not up to your usual standards, BBC, as I had to say quite recently in connection with your "flaky Magazine "science", separately on sodium and chlorine.

OK. so the BBC people is quoting others' "research findings". But that's not the point. The BBC, along with the  other major media outlets, has a responsibility to see that it's reporting is both well-informed and BALANCED. It's hardly balanced to suggest that Britain has all but exhausted its last reserves of coal.

Economic arguments? Prohibitive costs of extraction? if that's the problem in the short or even medium term, then say so. But the economics are changing all the time, and any economic case for or against a revitalisation of our moribund coal industry awaits decisions on a host of alternative strategies - whether or not to frack for shale gas, a transforming development Stateside that has greatly reduced dependency on the Middle East, or whether or to continue to invest in 'green' renewable energy - notably wind power, whether on- or off-shore - and whether or not CCS (carbon capture and storage)  is likely to be embraced or not (a topic on which this blogger had a 1:1 a few years back with the then Chief Scientific Officer to the previous Labour government, my concern being what liquified CO2 might do to submarine North Sea chalk deposits in the presence of groundwater).

Note: this is immediate response, indeed protest, to seeing the above item this morning, and finding there was no invitation to post a comment (maybe a "Comments" facility will be opened soon - one hopes so). While we wait to see what happens if anything on the BBC site, I'll do some research on the research organization* that inspired the above headline, and look to see if other media outlets have publicized its projections for a fossil-fuel-free UK, and if so how. Hopefully there will be an opportunity to express some healthy scepticism, if not outright derision.

*Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University, UK. 

On its website, under Tweets,the Institute's Director Aled Jones says "our research is now the most read article on the BBC"

Trivial footnote : note that I have refrained from any mention of THAT still raging controversy over AGW. I made a decision long ago to keep my comments on that score confined to MSM threads, posting under my 'newsjunkie' and 'sciencebod' pseudonyms. Most of those comments, and indeed some IDs, have been wiped by moderators, not because of the scientific views expressed, notably on the physics of heat storage and release by cycles of evaporation and condensation, but because of the ferocious response from the 24/7 lobbyists that frequent those sites. Nuff said.

I also went to the generally authoritative Real Climate site in December 2009 to canvass opinion on my interpretation of the mechanism of back radiation at the kinetic molecular/bond energy level, which attracted some interest, if not wholesale agreement.

Update: Have just discovered by googling this site called "Biased BBC" where its commenters are voicing similar protests re the ludicrous suggestion that Britain is running out of coal..

Here's the priming comment with handy links:

Ian Rushlow says:
A new alarmist report by the Global Sustainability Institute being plugged by the BBC makes the extraordinary claim that the “UK’s oil, coal and gas ‘gone in five years’” (see And, of course, it goes without saying that “there should be a ‘Europe-wide drive’ towards wind, tidal, solar and other sources of renewable power” so solve the problem. But the claims – which go unchallenged – seem to be fantasy of the highest order. For instance, most sources estimate that there there are a good 30 years of oil left in the British part of the North Sea. Here’s an article from the BBC this February making such a claim – Why such a disparity in 3 months? Because the first article is a plug for Scottish independence and the new article is a plug for Europe and a dig at the coalition. For those worried that it is all going to come to an end in 5 years time – don’t worry. There may be enough coal to last us for several centuries (see, ditto for gas (see Britain’s energy problems and interdependence on other countries are, like so many problems, largely manufactured.

Further reading (expressing views that are or maybe different from my own):  "Renewable energy won't rid us of the horrors of coal" by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian.

Here's a link to a well informed article by Shaun Richards for Mindful Money in  which the writer puts a finger on how the East Anglia based researchers arrived at those  (alarmist) estimates for remaining reserves.

"If we move to the reserves of coal that we believe we have without new technologies then the UK Coal Authority estimated these at 4,575 million tonnes in February 2013. This sounds an enormous amount and far more than four and a half years worth. As we review that we consumed some 64.9 million tonnes in 2012 acording to the UK government then we appear to have around 70 years worth of proveable reserves left. If we consider the new technology discussed above it seems sensible to believe that we have a lot more than that although of course some of this reflects hope as well as fact."

It's hardly impressive, is it, not for a research institute that cares about the little things of life, like credibility?

What's especially hair-raising is the way the reserves of oil have been calculated. This quote from Richards gives the lie:

"The Global Sustainability Institute kindly provided me with a link to their report and as we review their assumptions we do see what has taken place. (My bolding).

The units used are “years left” i.e. how many years of internal oil consumption (at the current rate) could be provided for by existing reserves. This figure is arrived at by dividing total reserves by consumption per year.
As you can see this is not saying that we will run out of oil in 5.2 years time but that we would do so if we only used our own UK reserves."

Methinks the BBC needs to rewrite its article.

Afterthought: the writer and his wife spent a few days in  Aberdeen late last summer for a reunion. It's clear to see why it's  the oil capital of Britain, perhaps of the EU, when you see the extensive and bustling facilities in and around the harbour and airport for servicing the North Sea gas and oil rigs. We used the opportunity to make a flying visit to the main Shetland island. Chatting with the locals and fellow hotel guests (oil workers for the most part) there seemed general optimism that supplies were not about to run out any time soon. Why? Increasingly sophisticated means of scavenging the reserves that did not shoot straight up the initial bore holes (that and the increasing use being made of horizontal bores, radiating from the initial site, the technical term for which I've forgotten).

Historical footnote re gasification

When I was a teenager, working my way through the public library's stock of chemical textbooks, there were 2 kinds of gasification described. The first was the better-known coal gas plant. There, coal was roasted in retorts in the absence of air in a process called 'destructive distillation', and the chief products were methane and hydrogen, piped to homes. but with a lethal component too (carbon monoxide).  The end-product in the retort was porous coke (impure carbon) which we used to see heaped up in school near the boilers.  Coke could be harmlessly tossed at friends and foes alike. I expect most school boilers these days are gas-fired, or maybe oil-fired.

But there was a means of getting extra gas from coke, but it needed alternating two stage chemistry to get it to work. First it was placed in a retort and heated in a stream of air. The exothermic reaction produced first carbon dioxide and heat, but that was followed by  a second reaction in which the carbon dioxide reacted with more hot carbon to make flammable (but poisonous) carbon monoxide. The end product, mainly carbon monoxide, suitable only for industrial, non-domestic use, was carbon monoxide, of relatively low calorific value, due to dilution with atmospheric nitrogen. It was called "producer gas" and was a poor relation (see next).

Once the bed of coke was red or white hot,due to the blast of air, another type of chemistry became possible, namely an endothermic (heat-absorbing) reaction with steam (H2O) producing a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, both flammable, called "water gas", without diluting  nitrogen. But the reaction quickly slowed down as the bed of hot coke cooled due to the endothermic reaction. That was the signal to inject more air, to get more producer gas, followed by more steam, more water gas.

What's been achieved, it seems to get gasification of coal, as distinct from coke (coal being essentially a complex solid semi-aromatic hydrocarbon) is to heat the stuff in situ , i.e.underground or in the sea bed in the presence of purified oxygen rather than air, (thus eliminating diluent nitrogen) and steam to get a kind of intermediate mix that is neither  water gas nor producer gas , but something intermediate. I'm hazy about the details, but will try to get some more specific information. Watch this space.

Latest update: 16 May 2014  (Yes, still same day as original BBC posting).

Thought I would go back to the same BBC site to see if Auntie had decided to offer a correction on her abysmal reporting of what clearly was some highly agenda-driven research from that East Anglia institute. Have studied the page closely, and guess what? There is no mention of Aunty's original news item.

Maybe that's the best one can expect when the mighty BBC is rumbled...

Methinks you need to catch up with the digital age BBC...Her days of mantra-mumbling PC political-grandstanding, thought-moulding days are numbered. And not before time. Would it be too much of an exaggeration to say that the BBC has attempted to emasculate the UK man-in-the-street as a legitimate force or influence on  the shaping of world opinion these last 60 years or so? The BBC's reasons for doing so could form the subject of a score of PhD theses...

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