Ex-Chief Scientist criticises Qld UCG ban

FORMER Australian Chief Scientist Professor Robin Batterham, who was on the review team for the report of the Independent Scientific Panel Queensland’s government set up to examine UCG operations, writes exclusively for ICN sister publication Energy News criticising the state’s knee-jerk reaction by banning UCG extraction.

Staff Reporter

Innovation is the buzz word of politics right now. That is most encouraging as it is what Australia needs, but should it be politics that determines the outcomes of innovation or is a sound base of science and technology a better driver?

A recent policy decision in Queensland banned an emerging industry, underground coal gasification, due to two trial participants not having the appropriate process controls in place.

There was also another company, Carbon Energy, which did demonstrate solid environmental results and followed a transparent and scientific methodology. Despite this it was also banned from operating in the state, posing the question – what was the purpose of the trials?

Large scale trials that are first of their kind, by nature, always take time to develop and successes are renowned for coming after a series of failures. As we have discovered not all technological trials are created equal nor do they have the same adequate risk based controls in place.

The Queensland UCG trials began in the late 2000s and were seen as an opportunity to demonstrate innovation on extracting gas from coal without the need for mining. Since then a very different process, CSG, has mushroomed and the shine from coal to gas operations has dulled.

Carbon Energy is a relatively small company of about 15 employees now, and about 5000 mum and dad investors who strongly believe in its technology, investing over $150 million which has been developed with over 10 years of research with the CSIRO.

This innovative company has utilised a rigorous and scientific methodology that it appears other trials in Australia have not.

  • Firstly, its process identified early on that site selection and depth of operations was critical to success.
  • Process controls and design of its technology meant it was fully in control of operations. Its unique technology allowed for control that was environmentally safe and could be managed in a responsible risk-based manner.
  • Its trial included decommissioning and a rehabilitation plan (which involved allowing for natural remediation), which no other proponent has done and now Carbon Energy can demonstrate.

This all adds up to a world first scientific demonstration of an emerging technology from site selection, underground coal gasification with no deleterious impact and finally rehabilitation to conditions no worse than what existed at the start. In my opinion it is simply irrational to ban such a process based on the evidence available.

I first came into contact with Carbon Energy in 2011 when I was asked to peer review a report developed by a government-appointed Independent Scientific Panel on the UCG industry. At the time I was impressed by the company’s scientific rigor, the results of its gas quality and the low environmental impact of its operations.

Carbon Energy’s results opened my eyes to a modern and responsible way to harness energy from coal in a way that outperformed competitor technologies.

The ISP Report positively viewed the potential of UCG, however it further challenged the proponents to extend their results and go on to decommission and provide a plan for rehabilitation. This recommendation set a new benchmark for the proving of a resources technology.

Previously, decommissioning (the stopping of operations) and rehabilitation (determining what is required to return a site to a benchmark level) are only considered once resource operations are coming to an end. Nowadays, such matters are considered up front and it was appropriate that Carbon Energy had to jump this hurdle, despite the technology being new.

Carbon Energy was the only company to complete the recommendations of the ISP and in doing so have become a trailblazer in resources innovation, setting a new bench mark in trial innovation testing in the resources industry.

The technology used (Keyseam) is now more advanced than other unconventional mining technologies in that it has proven its entire lifecycle process to be under control. Where others companies failed, Carbon Energy and its science based methodology succeeded.

Queensland which has previously been a proud innovator and supporter of the coal industry has now banned one of its most significant scientific advancements in coal and effectively thrown its baby out with the bath water. Why?

Carbon Energy is a relative minnow in comparison to the giant companies in the same industry, but not all innovations come from billion dollar conglomerations and this quiet achiever warranted support. If we are going to seriously foster innovation, and propose companies invest heavily on scientific methodologies, we need to nurture those that demonstrate achievements and not disregard the science.

This company’s 5000 investors did.

Carbon Energy, by its own admissions, advises the ISP process gave it “great confidence” in its technology and it is now focussed on developing projects in China where it has been invited to head up an International UCG Research Centre.

The Centre has been established by China’s largest mining institute, the China University of Mining Technology.

The Chinese government is leading the world having identified UCG as one of the technologies that can safely and responsibly utilise the country’s significant coal reserves for energy generation.

As another of our bold and ever so important innovations heads off-shore I feel for Carbon Energy which has been pushed to prove its innovation in Queensland, following a path outlined by scientific experts appointed by the State and then shunned by the policy makers who defined the path.

Even if Queensland policy makers have chosen not to use this successful technology locally in a political response to issues unrelated to Carbon Energy, then let's hope the Queensland Government can still recognise this local innovation and its technology success.

Otherwise why would others seek to partner and invest in Queensland and risk innovation success being sacrificed for politics?

Professor Batterham was recently appointed to the technical advisory committee to oversee the UCG centre in China.