SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 167 April 2013

Lib Dem environmental sell-out

Lib-Dem Energy and Climate Change minister, Ed Davey, is currently pushing through an Energy Bill in Parliament that totally destroys the little remaining credibility he has on environmental issues. It embeds the ‘dash for gas’ into government policy, which will make it impossible to meet greenhouse gas targets. The government’s own Committee on Climate Change has warned that chancellor George Osborne’s plan to build 40 new gas-fired power stations would be incompatible with meeting carbon targets.

As well as the plan for the new gas power stations, Davey has just given the green light to fracking, a technology where shale rock is blown up to release the gas inside it. This is fraught with environmental and health-and-safety dangers. To compound this folly Davey has also grovelled to the nuclear power manufacturers, offering vast subsidies to build new plant, after pledging he would never do this. All this is justified by the need for energy security, in order to ‘stop the lights going out’.

A key issue in the Energy Bill that could give it some environmental credibility is to have a target for the decarbonisation of the electricity generating sector. This needs to be done by a date compatible with the demands of climate science for the speed of greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Despite verbally supporting the setting of such a target, Davey has not included one in his bill. The bill not only fails to set a target date, but makes no requirement for the minister to set one in the future.

Also, the date that has been mooted by its advocates of 2030 would be too late. Most climate experts think that greenhouse gas emissions should be cut by 40% by 2020 to have any chance of limiting a global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, a figure above which there could be very rapid heating due to so-called feedback effects. In addition, the bill will allow the continued use of bio-mass for electricity generation which, experience has proved, adds to the problem of global warming.

Last December, the moratorium on fracking was lifted by the government to give a boost to the dash for gas. Fracking had been suspended after its use led to small earthquakes at a site in Lancashire. If implemented, fracking will worsen climate change because of the shale gases it is designed to release, which are then burned. There is an extra environmental danger because methane can also be freed to the atmosphere in the fracking process. Methane is 20 times worse for the climate than the carbon dioxide that is the most common gas released by burning fossil fuels. A recent article in the highly respected science magazine, Nature, on atmospheric emissions provided evidence of this danger. In the USA, the government has introduced a new regulation to require that methane produced in fracking is stored, an initiative that has not been taken up in Britain. Even if it was, it poses the question of how to safely store the methane for an indefinite period of time.

Fracking is not just a danger to the environment it also raises huge health-and-safety issues. The dangers of earthquakes are now well publicised but, at Balcombe in Sussex, where exploratory drilling for shale gas was done by the US firm Cuadrilla, residents objected after a study by Durham University found that the water supply could be contaminated. An investigation by Greenpeace found evidence that the government is trying to cover up the extent of danger to groundwater in fracking. The Environment Agency (EA), the government body responsible for regulation in this area, gave guidance to prime minister David Cameron that planning permission should not be given where ground waters were present. However, this document was not released to the public, and the EA’s head of climate change suggested he would ‘finesse’ the wording so as not to present ‘too stark’ a position.

Greenpeace also found that there is collusion between government and firms in framing the fracking regulations. Officials at the Department for Energy and Climate Change sent a series of emails asking the giant US oil and gas producer, Exxon, for help and guidance in drawing up the regulations. As a result of local opposition and the controversy at Balcombe, Cuadrilla has now been forced to postpone planned fracking operations near Blackpool, while it carries out a full environmental impact assessment. How the firm was able to contemplate drilling operations without a full impact assessment has not been explained.

As well as his retreats in the Energy Bill, Davey has done a complete somersault on nuclear power – also in the name of energy security. Nuclear power, although unsafe, does not produce the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, and so is seen by some, mistakenly, as a green alternative to fossil fuels. Davey is offering to guarantee the wholesale cost of nuclear generated electricity, at nearly twice the current market price, for 40 years. This is a desperate attempt to bribe operators like EDF Energy to build a new nuclear power station at Hinckley Point in Somerset. After the Fukushima disaster, manufacturers are wary of incurring the costs linked to a future catastrophe and now want massive government subsidies to proceed. They also know that the government thinks there is a looming energy shortage and they are therefore in a strong bargaining position.

In 2006, Davey attacked the New Labour government on nuclear subsidies in an article entitled ‘Where Will Blair Hide His Nuclear Tax Bombshell?’ In the article he predicted that some form of guaranteed price would be offered to firms to hide the true cost of nuclear power. Tom Burke of Imperial College calculates that EDF will receive a £50 billion subsidy from artificially high prices for building the Hinckley Point power station complex. This is in addition to the £44 billion price support subsidy it received for extending the lives of four of its existing nuclear stations. It remains to be seen if EDF proceed with Hinckley Point. This will depend not only on its economic calculations, but on the campaign waged against it by the local community.

The justification for Davey’s humiliating retreats is that there is a looming energy shortage and his measures are necessary to keep the lights on. It may be true that there could be insufficient installed electricity capacity in the future. If so, this will be due to the refusal of the privatised utilities, which put profits before long-term investment, to invest in new plant. There is doubt on future shortages, though, since projections depend on whether the economy grows significantly in the next ten years. The right response to any energy shortage should be, initially, to institute a programme of energy saving, for instance by a massive programme of insulation of homes.

The key way of increasing energy efficiency, however, will be to eliminate the waste and inefficiency of the capitalist market system, the duplication of resources and energy losses in the boom/bust cycle. In the anarchic market system it is difficult to predict what electricity demand will be a year ahead, never mind decades into the future. Prediction can only be done accurately by eliminating capitalism and moving to a democratically planned economy. Polluting generating capacity could then be replaced by renewable energy on a planned basis. The first step in achieving this will be to renationalise the energy utilities like EDF.

Pete Dickenson

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