Vast coal deposits lying deep beneath the North Sea will be burnt to generate up to 5% of Britain’s energy needs, under new plans approved by the government.

The UK Coal Authority has awarded licences to Anglo-American company Clean Coal to develop five offshore sites for Underground Coal Gasification (UGC) technology.

The former director of oil and gas company Tullow Oil and chairman of Clean Coal Rohan Courtney, said that the potential for the technology was enormous.

“There are enormous amounts of coal lying beneath the North Sea, which have never been accessed,” he said. “This technology is going to open up the industry again in the UK,” he told The Times.

The combined coal reserves are estimated to be at least one billion tons; equivalent to more than one sixth of all the coal consumed in an average year around the world.