Energy is not a luxury, it is a basic human need: it is required for cooking food, as well as for heating homes in a cold climate such as ours – and yet it is being put beyond the reach of increasing numbers of ordinary people in our society.
We have known for some time however, that we can no longer use energy unthinkingly. The continued exploitation of fossil fuels to provide for this basic need is making extreme weather “the new normal”, and leaving a planet which will, within a few short decades, be essentially uninhabitable for future generations.
For both of the above reasons, there is an urgent need to retake democratic control of energy and ensure that it is used for the common good.
When EDF declared its intention to sue twenty-one No Dash for Gas activists for £5 million, for having closed down its West Burton power station for a week last November, many were outraged at the company’s bullying tactics, which amounted to an assault on the right to peaceful protest. In fact, the state-owned French corporation already has a track record on intimidating activists in its home country, and at present is working with construction companies which have blacklisted environmental activists in the UK. At the same time, however, the affair drew attention to a whole series of other matters in which private interests are being given priority over the wider public interest.
First of all, the lawsuit gave extra publicity to the activists’ own cause: the impossibility of the Government carrying out its plan to build up to forty new gas-fired power stations, and at the same time meeting even its own inadequate carbon reduction targets. In the context of increasingly urgent warnings from the scientific community regarding the accelerating pace of climate change, this amounts to gross irresponsibility, showing an utter disregard for present and future generations, most notably to the poorest here and in the global south, who will be hit hardest by the consequences.
Nor will a dash for gas bring down bills for domestic consumers, as George Osborne seems to believe. Moreover, EDF and the other big six companies – Npower, SSE, Scottish, E-ON and British Gas – hardly have a shining record on reducing bills for customers in recent years, whilst directors award themselves bonuses that could pay several thousand household bills. Not only have these companies raised prices well above inflation several years in a row, but they have also been involved in various misselling scams, defrauding their customers on a massive scale. In this area as in so many others, the regulators, supposed defenders of the public interest following the privatisation mania of recent decades, have once again proven that they are no match for large private corporations.
But that is not all, as regards EDF: the company intends to build a third nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset. This comes only two years after the Fukushima disaster and when in otherwise the Government seem very sensitive to the risks of international terrorism. In addition, it will leave a site which will be contaminated for thousands of years to come and produce yet more radioactive waste, for which there is still no safe method of disposal. For years, Governments have promised the British people that no taxpayers’ money would be used to subsidise new nuclear power. Now the UK Government has gone back on its promise to its electors, and has essentially handed over £50bn of taxpayers’ money to a private company over the 40-year lifetime of the plant, according to one expert.
However, there is a growing refusal to accept the “abuse of power” of the Big 6 energy companies, and to propose positive practicable alternatives. Occupy London Energy, Equity and Environment Group and various other groups have been planning a series of events to support and build on the success of No Dash for Gas, starting with our EDF* Off assembly this Friday, bringing together various groups campaigning on some of the issues raised above.
Occupy London Energy, Equity & Environment Working Group
A year and a half ago Cuadrilla Resources, a company created by private equity to exploit the decline in easy to extract fossil fuels, began fracking the first ever shale gas well in Britain. Unfortunately for them, during these first fracks, a rather inconvenient event happened. Two of the frack stages cause a number of small, but not inconsequential, earthquakes. For those worried about the safety of these new extreme energy extraction techniques, the fact that these earthquakes buckled the well casing with unknown consequences for the integrity of the well were worrying. For the company and the government though, the main issue was the PR nightmare that ensued. A gentlemen’s agreement was quickly reached that Cuadrilla would refrain from fracking until this PR problem could be fixed. Numerous reports, endorsements from tame institutions, and oodles of spin later this PR problem has allegedly been solved.
This week saw the long expected announcement that the government will allow Cudrilla and other fracking companies to continue with attempts to exploitation of unconventional gas. The solution has been to integrate fracking into government energy policy, explicitly a new “Dash for Gas” which will involve the building of over 40 new gas-fired power stations. With North Sea gas in terminal decline, imports stalled due to completion with Asia and consumption being squeezed by rising prices, an energy plan involving burning loads more gas might seem to somewhat disconnected from reality. However there is method in their madness. The option of sensible energy conservation and localisation would not be profitable for transnational corporations. On the other hand the predictable energy shortages and price spikes can could be extremely lucrative.
The impact of a mad scramble to exploit unconventional gas would not be equally felt either. The fundamental difference with unconventional gas is that it is trapped in impermeable rock and cannot flow cannot easily flow so wells need to be drilled at regular intervals to access it. In order to supply just the proposed 40 new power stations it would be necessary to drill in excess of 50,000 wells, covering an area of over 7,000 square miles (at a density of 8 wells per square mile). Add in the thousand of miles of pipelines, compressor stations and associated infrastructure that would be needed and you get some idea of the scale of the issue. With the evidence from the US and Australia of destruction of water supplies, air quality, ecosystems, and people’s health mounting by the day, local people are justifiably scared.
On a global scale, we might just be able to get away with burning perhaps a quarter of known conventional fossil fuels and still have a (mostly) liveable planet. Any exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels would put us on a path to truly catastrophic climate change. Worse still fracking may just a gateway drug. The government is already selling licences for Underground Coal Gasification (UCG), literally setting fire to coal underground to extract energy. This planned close to major cities including London, Swansea, Liverpool, Newcastle and Edinburgh. In the next year the main battles are likely to be in Scotland and Lancashire, but many other areas of the country are threatened. Dart Energy has submitted a planning application for 14 sites, with 22 wells and 20 km of pipelines near Airth and Cuadrilla Resources want to restart fracking in Lancashire. The government also has plans to sell off half the country to fracking companies in the next year.
All this may be sounding very bleak but there some glimmers of hope. Over a year ago a report was produced that was supposed to smooth the way to a swift resumption of fracking. Unfortunately the morning that the report was released Cuadrilla’s drilling rig in Lancashire was stormed and occupied for over 11 hours, while further protests took place outside the conference. Less than a month later the rig was occupied again for another day. Meanwhile a string of public meetings and local organising was building a network of local community groups that continues to grow. Cuadrilla was planning to have fracked up to a dozen test wells and be pushing towards full scale production by now. Instead an alliance of local communities and environmental activists has managed to help delay the introduction of shale gas extraction for over a year and cost Cuadrilla millions.
If that all sounds a bit familiar, it should do. It is the basic story of the roads protests of the 1990s, where a variety of people from all walks of life were united by a common sense of injustice. We all know how well that worked out for the people who want to build a load of shit in other people’s communities. Now our countryside is under even greater threat, while the global implications have become apocalyptic. Across the globe the movement against extreme energy is gaining momentum. The fight for a future we can live in has just begun. For a round up of anti-fracking activity worldwide you could do worse than this occasionally amusing report by mercenary company Control Risks.