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Exploiting Coal by Burning It Underground

Igniting coal in seams deep underground may limit pollution
A natural gas rig lights up the night near Dimock, Pa. Improvements in seismic mapping and drilling that have lit a fire under the U.S. fracking boom could also spur development of a domestic coal gas industry
A natural gas rig lights up the night near Dimock, Pa. Improvements in seismic mapping and drilling that have lit a fire under the U.S. fracking boom could also spur development of a domestic coal gas industryPhotograph by Mark Ovaska/Redux

Imagine if the world’s most abundant fossil fuel could be tapped without moving mountains, delivered without trucks or trains, and burned without emitting greenhouse gases. Actually, the technology to make this possible has been around for more than a century. Underground coal gasification (UCG) was pioneered by Sir William Siemens in the 1860s to light the streets of London. Vladimir Lenin hailed the method in a 1913 article in Pravda for its potential to rescue Russian workers from the hazards of underground mines.

Despite its early boosters, the technology never caught on in the U.S.—mostly because it cost too much. Now the improvements in seismic mapping and drilling that have lit a fire under the U.S. fracking boom could also spur the development of a domestic coal gas industry, proponents say. “The shale gas revolution is opening doors for the coal gas revolution,” says Richard Morse, director of coal and carbon research at Stanford University. “We knew it was there but couldn’t get it out in a cost-effective way.”