THE man behind controversial plans to extract gas from coal in the Firth of Forth was accused of “panicking” after he admitted that he has not ruled out moving such projects offshore in the future.

However, Algy Cluff, chairman and chief executive of Cluff Natural Resources (CNR), told The National he had no current plans to circumvent planning regulations by moving his company’s current bid to build the UK’s first underground coal gasification (UCG) project to an offshore footing.

He said: “We could move the Forth project offshore, but we’re not going to. We’ve not even considered it. But it is something we could consider in the future. The further out you go in the North Sea the thicker the underground coal seams are, but it is also much more expensive to work on them.”

The UCG process heats up underground coal seams to start a chemical reaction which releases a gas known as “syngas” – a mixture of methane, hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide – which can be used in industry.

CNR holds nine conditional licences around the coast of the UK, including for Kincardine, in the Firth of Forth and Largo Bay off the coast of Fife. The company said the £250 million UCG project was at an “advanced engineering feasibility” stage and the location was “conceptual”, with a number of potential sites in the area.

Environmental groups have consistently criticised UCG, saying the majority of fossil fuels must be left unburned to protect our environment.

Lang Banks, director of WWF Scotland, said: “If Cluff believes its plans to burn coal under the sea will not damage our climate or the wider environment, then it shouldn’t be preparing to try and circumvent Scotland’s planning rules like this. If this is the way the company is going to behave, then Scottish ministers should call Cluff’s bluff and immediately widen its fracking moratorium.

“The science is clear, to protect our climate, the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves must remain unburned. In a worst case scenario, proposals like these could even prolong our use of fossil fuels, locking us into a high carbon world.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland director, Dr Richard Dixon, added: “Cluff is clearly panicking, with hectoring letters to ministers and now an attempt to avoid the planning system.

“Even if he manages to dream up a scheme that doesn’t need planning permissions Scotland still controls the environmental and marine licences that he will need. So he might be able to avoid subjecting his plans to local democracy but the Scottish Government would have no trouble stopping him if they wanted to.

“We and many others have been urging Scottish ministers to declare a moratorium on UCG so that it’s environmental and health impacts can be examined in the same way as other forms of unconventional gas. With its terrible history around the world we think the case for a full ban even stronger than for fracking.”

Fife is one of the local authority areas most likely to feel the impact of any UCG developments, and the council has already called for clarity from the Scottish Government around the future of unconventional energy.

Deputy council leader Lesley Laird has urged the area’s MSPs to support a bid to have the moratorium on fracking extended to cover UCG.

She said: “The review was announced before the General Election and, unfortunately, there are no details or timetable available to date from the Scottish Government on the moratorium.

“UCG must be included in the moratorium. It is unthinkable that Fife could be put in the position of having to deal with a planning application without due diligence being carried out in terms of non-conventional energy, including UCG. Clarity and transparency are now needed around this pressing issue.”

Edinburgh East MP Tommy Sheppard, whose branch has tabled a motion for the party’s conference calling for the fracking ban to be extended to cover UCG, said he would be interested to see exactly what CNR had in mind.

He said: “UCG is tricky at the best of times.

“Doing it from a floating platform would be even more problematic.I’d be very curious to see exactly what they had planned, because I’d have thought it would be pretty tricky to get the syngas pumped out to a floating platform.

“Moving a project offshore would be one device they could use to get around any moratorium, but it seems an incredibly complicated way to do it.”