What price the Solway’s undersea coal?

Whitehaven Colliery: section through Haig Pit drifts (part of a drawing at Haig Colliery Museum)

Whitehaven Colliery: section through Haig Pit drifts (part of a drawing at Haig Colliery Museum), showing Main Band, Bannock Band & Six Quarters

The last coalmine under the Solway Firth, Haig Pit at Whitehaven, was closed in 1986. A note in the Haig Mining Museum states that hundreds of millions of tons of coal remain, up to 10 miles offshore and for two miles each side of Haig’s main roadway: enough coal to produce “1 million tons per year for 800 years.”

Haig closed because it was uneconomical to continue to work the pit; amongst other factors, the winding gear ‘was a limiting factor in the mine’s viability’ according to Kevin Murphy, the Programme Director of West Cumbria Mining (WCM).

Because of the long history of coal-extraction in this area, a huge amount of information already exists and can be re-processed: there was the offshore seismic survey carried out by NIREX for a potential depository for radioactive waste; there have been geophysical surveys and research; and research for Haig Pit itself, such as onshore boreholes to the south-east. And of course there are still memories and expertise amongst the local population.

WCM and Cluff Natural Resources (CLNR) have been granted licences to allow them to prospect for, and extract or otherwise use, the coal that remains in the Solway coalfield.

How is coal ‘used’?

I will not be discussing whether or not we should be using coal at all: I’ve written about this previously on this blog.

There are a variety of ways in which coal is used, according to the World Coal website. Here I want to concentrate on two uses, in the two proposals for the Solway Firth.

According to its hardness and composition, extracted coal is either burnt to provide heat and thus steam for power-stations (‘thermal coal’) or used to fire the furnaces of the steel-making process (‘coking’ or ‘metallurgical’ coal). The slag-banks on the Workington shore are reminders of West Cumbria’s former steel-making industry. Currently, coking coal is worth twice as much per tonne as thermal coal.

If the coal is difficult to reach and extract – often known as ‘stranded coal’ – it can be burnt in situ to produce gas, which is brought up to the surface and used elsewhere: this is Underground Coal Gasification (UCG).

Indeed, whenever coal is burnt whether in steel-making or UCG generation, carbon in the form of CO2 is given off.

Let’s look at what these two proposals mean in relation to the Solway Firth.

(Note that the amounts of coal estimated to be available in coal-fields are subject to independent verification according to what’s known as the JORC standards (1).)

Cluff Natural Resources

Algy Cluff is ‘something of a character in the City’ according to Tom Bawden of The Independent: ‘The septuagenarian oil and gas entrepreneur has certainly had his fair share of experiences, from serving in the Guards and the SAS to writing dispatches from Vietnam for The Guardian.’ He also owned The Spectator for a while, and in the 1970s he made a fortune with Cluff Oil in the North Sea, since when he’s had various companies involved in mining and other resources including Cluff Gold.

His most recent venture is CLNR Ltd, set up because he was – and has remained – impressed at the vast stores of coal around the UK’s shores. But rather than extracting coal from these difficult sites, he wants to extract gas as he explains in this (surprisingly hesitant) corporate video  by Underground Coal Gasification. He is adamant that the UK government needs to address the problems of energy security quickly, with research and investment in newer, cleaner ways for gas-generated power.

UGC is simpler and cheaper than mining because the coal seams are reached by horizontal drilling (ironically, developed in fracking); no underground machines are required. Oxidants, oxygen and steam, are pumped into the coal seam under pressure; the coal ignites and releases ‘producer’ or ‘syngas’ – a mixture of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane – and the gas is collected and transported to where it’s needed.

Also necessary, of course, are facilities for managing and storing the oxidants, facilities for managing and transporting the Syngas, and a small number of bore-holes.
Stuart Haszeldine, Professor of Carbon Capture and Storage at the University of Edinburgh is quoted on page 3 of CLNR’s Press Release saying ‘underground gasification will be much cleaner than importing coal because most of the engineering occurs deep below ground offshore. Underground gasification will have less impact on the public than other forms of unconventional gas extraction [ie fracking].’ It is also argued that underground burning can be quickly stopped by shutting down the pipes feeding in the oxidants.

CLNR has been awarded 8 deep UCG licences around Britain’s coast, five of which are close to former coal-mining areas like Durham – and Whitehaven on the Solway coast; details are here.

CLNR's Kincardine licence area

CLNR’s Kincardine licence area

Initially CLNR has been focussing on the Kincardine licence in the Firth of Forth, a coalfield with three former coal-mines including Longannet. The geologist’s report makes interesting reading, and a September 2015 report to potential investors notes that ‘The area contains [a JORC estimate of] 335 million tonnes of coal. The immediately exploitable part of this resource is the energy equivalent of 1.4bn cubic feet of natural gas. To put this in perspective, 1bn cubic feet of gas would meet the energy needs of 11,000 homes for one year.’

Should the Kincardine project go ahead, what would the UCG be used for? It is ‘adjacent to a major petrochemical complex at Grangemouth, the Longannet coal-fired power station and a number of other energy-intensive industries which could benefit from a new low cost source of fuel gas and petrochemical feedstock.’ Fed into Grangemouth, Syngas could be used as feedstock for eg plastics. But there is currently no gas-fired power-station in the vicinity – Cluff is looking into the future.

Syngas is nevertheless a fossil fuel and contains the ‘greenhouse gases’, CO2 and methane. Its use in power-generation only makes sense if carbon capture is employed; Stuart Haszeldine again: ‘Carbon capture is essential to link, and balance between, carbon production and carbon storage [my italics]. Positioning underground gasification in Central Scotland gives easy and unique access to well understood transport pipelines and reliable sites for CO2 storage deep beneath the North Sea.’ (2)  Haszeldine, who is a Director of Scottish Carbon Capture and Storage, is a strong proponent of the idea that CCS should be considered by negotiators at this month’s Paris talks on climate change.

Carbon-capture, pressurised liquefaction and storage on this scale is as yet untried although two demonstration projects – Peterhead in Aberdeenshire and White Rose in Yorkshire, are on track to receive £1 billion UK funding and start construction in 2016.  (The Peterhead project and the ‘empty’ Goldeneye oilwell feature in the third of Ian Stewart’s BBC4 series Planet Oil (from 48 mins in).

CLNR’s plans for the Kincardine Area of Interest have inevitably created concerns and launched protests. A month ago the Scottish Government extended its moratorium on fracking to include another source of ‘unconventional’ gas, UCG , so as to allow the necessary time for “full and careful consideration of the potential impacts of this new technology”.

In response, Cluff has said, ‘It seems to me to be very much a politically-driven issue and not, in my humble opinion, an issue that is in the public interest. … The question you need to ask is what is Scotland going to do after the closure of Longannet takes 40% of Scotland’s electricity-generating capacity out of the system? I would say it’s a very serious situation.’

And what about CLNR’s plans for the Solway Firth?

CLNR's licence area, Maryport and Allonby Bay

CLNR’s North Cumbria licence area, Maryport and Allonby Bay

CLNR's Whitehaven licence area

CLNR’s Whitehaven licence area

Further details about the Solway licences, including a summary of the survey by geological consultants Wardell Armstrong International, and JORC estimates for coking coal, are in this press release.

UCG plants in the Maryport/Allonby Bay or Workington/Whitehaven areas would require all the onshore facilities mentioned above – for storing water and oxidant, for pressurising the injection, and for collecting and storing and transporting the Syngas. Where would the Syngas be used? Where would the captured and liquified carbon be sent to be stored? (There are of course a lot of ‘big holes’, relics of the industrial past, in West Cumbria.)

Although Scotland is just across the Firth, the UK government is not the same as the Scottish government and has notably different priorities; a moratorium on ‘unconventionals’ is clearly not in the pipeline.

Cluff now plans to concentrate on his English licences instead – there are two off Durham, and two under the Solway. Which of these will be chosen next?

West Cumbria Mining

WCM was set up a couple of years ago, having been awarded several licences covering approximately 200 square kilometres off the Whitehaven coast; early estimates based on existing data suggested there ‘are over 750 million tonnes of coking coal resources across the area’. The exploratory work is being financed with about £15 million provided, in several tranches, by EMR Capital Resources Fund, an Australian private equity company.

WCM's licence areas to the South of Whitehaven

WCM’s licence areas to the South of Whitehaven

When Kevin Murphy, WCM’s Programme Director, gave a talk about the scheme in Cockermouth a few weeks ago, he said that the CEO, Mark Kirkbride, had stressed the importance of an ‘open and honest approach from day 1’, so that the West Cumbrian community would be in no doubt about what WCM intended and were doing. ‘We have lots of engagement with the community, drop-in sessions, meetings,’ he said. And it’s true: you have only to look at their website to see how open the company is to explaining every step of the process and what might be expected or hoped for.
It is, in fact, a model website – articulate, straightforward, well illustrated, with links to community newsletters and updates, all with a friendly tone, that is a delight to browse.

The company has this open and honest approach on its side; Kevin Murphy himself gave a straightforward talk, with none of the smooth business-speak that you might expect. WCM also garners a huge set of advantages in that so much data about the coal seams is already available and, moreover, there seems generally to be a feeling of good will towards a company that wants to re-instate what is essentially the region’s mining heritage. People living in West Cumbria know about coal mines – and they can also appreciate that mining and the treatment of the extracted coal has moved on technically from the Haig Pit days.

There is the ‘potential employment of 400 people, 80% of whom could be local and semi-skilled,’ and Murphy says that Kirkbride is also ‘passionate about this being jobs for local people’; WCM are working with the local colleges, discussing ways of ‘tweaking their courses’ so that they might be able relatively quickly to train, for example, electricians as ‘underground electricians’.

So, what has been happening beside and beneath the Solway?

WCM's sample cores of coal

WCM’s sample cores of coal

Phase 1, onshore exploration drilling was completed in 2014: results from four boreholes give an initial JORC estimate of 80 million tonnes onshore of good-quality hard coking coal.

Sample cores and chemical analysis show it has ‘exceptionally low ash, at 3%; low phosphate at less than 0.01% (the usual is ~0.2%); and the sulphur content is moderate – but can be washed out’.


Phase 2 drilling was completed in September 2015, one borehole onshore, and three boreholes offshore beneath a jack-up barge. The coal starts at 350-400 metres and goes down to about 600 metres beneath the sea.

WCM's jack-up barge and drilling rig, South of St Bees' Head

WCM’s jack-up barge and drilling rig, South of St Bees’ Head

Surveys have shown there is a large fault in the way, (‘we need to understand how disruptive this might be’) but otherwise the coal thickens out to sea and is ‘more benign’, in other words shows less faulting than the onshore seams. Of the 13 possible seams, apparently four look useful: Tenquarter, which is ~1.6m deep; Bannock ~2.5m; Main Band ~2.6m; and Sixquarters, ~ 2.0m. There are possibly 1.3bn tonnes of undersea coal in those 4 target seams, enough to supply 2.5m tonnes a year for 50 years (to put this in perspective, Murphy points out that 750kg coking coal makes 1 tonne of crude steel).
By Christmas 2015 WCM must prepare the Preliminary Feasibility Study and outline business case, including preliminary designs for the onshore buildings.

In Phase 3, starting 2016, the necessary permits must be obtained, environmental studies carried out, the Detailed Feasibility (or ‘Bankable’) Study prepared; and another 6 or 7 boreholes drilled.
If all goes smoothly, and all permissions and funding in place, WCM would hope to start constructing the mine in 2018, and start extracting coal by 2019.

What does the mine entail?

The mine will be a drift mine, in other words access will be down a tunnel leading to the unpressurised undersea roads; there will be no vertical shaft with winding gear. The method will be what’s known as ‘run-out and pocket’ pillar excavation, and machines ‘the size of tanks’ will move along hydraulically, cutting and collecting. The coal will be brought out on a conveyor belt.

But a mine doesn’t exist in isolation. The mine-head, the point of entry and exit for the excavations, might be sited in the Whitehaven-St Bees’ valley. On the surface, there will be processing and washing plants – the coal must be separated, crushed and washed to remove sulphur; a large amount of freshwater (source as yet unknown) will be needed to float off the coal. (December 2015: WCM’s newsletter with update on siting, and on waste and water disposal plans is now on their website.)

A storage site is needed – one option being discussed is to site this near the Port of Workington and hence near rail links.

Waste is produced during the tunnelling, and also during the above-ground processing. Murphy talked about the possibility of storing some of the rock waste at the empty mine at Keikle Head. The old anhydride mine might be used for storage: or again, the anhydride mine might be used as a point of access to the new driftmine.

Former miners and local geologists point out that Haig Pit was infamous for the amount of methane gas held in the coal. WCM are aware of this and Kevin Murphy mentioned, in passing, that they might collect the gas and burn it to provide extra energy for the mine.

With regard to steel-making, they would have been able to shift the blame for CO2 production to the coke- and steel-makers; not so with burning methane…

The other  necessity, of course, is transport – of coal and waste.

A digression into railways

WCM made an early commitment that the coal would be moved by rail, and not by road, and they note on their website that ‘the North West coastal railway line passes through the onshore licence block and connects to the nearby Port of Workington and onwards via the UK rail network to the UK’s three main steelworks’.
But the rail line along the county’s western border is currently barely fit for purpose.

Here’s where some joined-up thinking is coming in. Cumbria County Council, as part of the Local Enterprise Partnership’s ‘Cumbria Deal’, have brought companies together that are working on major new projects and have asked them to come up with plans for improving the rail network in the county. Colin Sharpe, Development Manager at the Port of Workington (which has a rail marshalling yard connected to the north-west coast line) told me that the Port, NuGen (proposed new nuclear build), the Environment Agency, United Utilities (new national grid connections), Sellafield (passenger transport for their staff), WCM and others have been asked to ‘sit round the table’ with the rail haulage provider DRS, and overlay the various projects, ‘to look where are the peaks in demand for the railway, where are the gaps, and the pinch-points’. Attention is now focussed on improving the county’s infrastructure.

DRS locomotive being unloaded at Port of Workington, October 2105 (thanks to Colin Sharpe for the photo)

DRS locomotive being unloaded at Port of Workington, October 2105 (thanks to Colin Sharpe for the photo)

(And here, for fun, is a Russian Doll of digressions: two weeks ago a vessel, the Douwe-S, docked at the Port of Workington and unloaded two new locomotives for DRS, the first two of 18, that are being shipped from Spain. They have been hauled away by existing locomotives, and will soon be seen – if you’re interested in looking – working on the wider rail network in the UK.)

Coking coal is metallurgical coal

It’s used for making steel.

Coking coal in steel-making (from WCM's website)

Coking coal in steel-making (from WCM’s website, http://www.westcumbriamining.com/what-is-the-plan/what-is-coking-coal/)

The UK has been importing coal for use in steel-making, 40 million tonnes pa, from America. WCM’s business plan is to partly replace the imports, but also to export coal to European steel-making areas such as the Rhine. WCM’s coking coal would be ‘ideal for boutique shipments’, according to Kevin Murphy.

In light of the cheap steel with which China is ‘flooding the market’, and given that the British steel industry has suddenly suffered a massive collapse – even ArcelorMittal, ‘the world’s biggest steel-maker’ is reporting a loss of £1.3bn for the first 9 months of 2015 – European government ministers have woken up and are gathered together like panicked hens at the steel summit in Brussels, trying to decide what to do.

Without an upturn in the European steel industry, the need for coking coal must surely plummet. Moreover, the price paid for coking coal has also dropped significantly since a high in 2011.

So it will be interesting to hear how WCM’s ‘Bankable Study’ will progress in the coming year.


Above the Firth, under the Firth, along the Firth, there are perceived to be many ways of generating electricity: the Solway is a source of many different things, to many different people.

It’s Britain’s Energy Coast-TM; it’s ‘one of the largest undisturbed estuaries in Europe’ (BBC Autumnwatch‘s Michaela Strachan); it’s ‘probably one of the most, if not the most, aggressive estuaries in the UK’ (Colin Sharpe, Port of Workington) ….

If we want it to be these things, and more, then somehow we need to strike a balance. But who is going to oversee this, and how?

(1) JORC: The Australasian Code for Reporting of Exploration Results, Mineral Resources and Ore Reserves, as published by the Joint Ore Reserves Committee of The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Australian Institute of Geoscientists and Minerals Council of Australia

(2) Scottish Carbon Capture and Storage, SCCS.
Research on undersea storage, the CO2 Multistore Joint Industry project, in the North Sea off Scotland, is explained here.


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