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Drax Axes Carbon Capture: What Now for UK Energy Policy?

Cameron’s Green Credentials in Tatters.


The Conservatives went back to their traditional position regarding green issues when they entered government in 2010. Now that they have the sole reins of power following May’s shock election result, they have accelerated their trashing of green issues.

Today it was announced that Drax power station, just a few miles down the M62, is pulling out of a carbon capture scheme due to the Government’s decision to drastically cut subsidies for renewable energy. The scheme also had the potential to achieve zero emission coal burning by pumping CO2 out into the North Sea. This would be done by turning the gas and oil pipes from exhausted fields around and using the massive caverns emptied to store emissions.  That would mean that there could the prospect of using the 300 year supply of high quality coal under Yorkshire without adding to climate change.

But the most damning indictment of privatised energy production came from Drax Ltd. The BBC reported, “The company said that due to lack of profits it had to put the business and shareholders first.”  That sentence sums up why our energy market, and our national security are threatened by Cameron, and New Labour’s none policy on what is a central plank of everyday life.

Out have gone slogans such as “vote blue, get green” and iconic images of David Cameron with huskies as the  Tory party seems to have dropped green issues right down its agenda.

Indeed an outburst by newly promoted Tory Energy Minister John Hayes in November 2012 revealed the Conservatives view on energy policy was at odds with their Lib Dem coalition partners,we have reached our ambition in respect of our renewables’ target – end of story” claimed Mr. Hayes.

His then boss, Energy Secretary Ed Davey, a Lib Dem was livid. But Cameron refused to refute Hayes’ statement which tells us all we need to know; that Cameron’s attempts to re brand the Tories as being green were just political posturing.

Let’s look at some recent history to see where we are regarding energy in the UK.

In January 2010 Britain, an oil and gas-producing nation, somehow got ourselves in a situation where we only had four days’ worth of gas left available to power the National Grid. This meant that Prime Minister Gordon Brown had to appeal to our European neighbours to sell us the requisite amount of energy just to keep the lights on.

January 2006 saw the Russians cut off gas supplies to the Ukraine after the former Soviet state refused to stomach a fourfold increase in unit prices. What is to say this couldn’t happen to the UK?

The main gas supply pipeline to the EU, and hence the UK comes bang, slap through the middle of the Ukraine, meaning any major rumpus between Kiev and Moscow would have a significant impact on our energy policy. The fact is, energy security is now a matter of vital interest, one which our government has absolved itself of because of privatisation. The spring 2014 crisis when the Ukraine suffered a coup supported by Germany and the EU brought this issue into stark focus.

Why is the UK in such a mess over energy policy? Quite simply, we haven’t had an energy policy since 1979. The Conservatives wasted billions of barrels of North Sea oil and the financial advantages that came with it. They pumped oil and gas out of the North Sea at a maximum rate and gave no thought to having a balanced energy policy where the UK didn’t become totally reliant on one source. None of the revenues where put away for a rainy day, unlike in Norway. An unconscious decision was made that oil and gas would be the policy of the UK with no provision for the future when the wells ran dry. The policy decision was taken, and this was to privatise the energy industry, with sales of BP and British Gas placing the utilities in the hands of private interests. This policy of neo-liberalism was  short sighted as energy supply, security and prices are now one of the biggest challenges we face.

In the summer 2011 UK households were expected to stomach 19% price rises from the energy companies, something that then coalition Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, a Lib Dem  naively commented on thus in the Guardian, “Consumers don’t have to take price increases lying down,” he said. “If an energy company hits you with a price increase, you can hit them back where it hurts – by shopping around and voting with your feet.” 

This is simply an example of a politician refusing to tackle the real challenges being faced. On this occasion Huhne failed to realise that the market had failed, it has failed because there are too few competitors with huge barriers to entry for smaller operators .Once again we reach a familiar conclusion; that the policies of neo-liberalism and Thatcherism have permanently failed resulting in the public being ripped off through lack of real choice.

Here is the crux of the problem, if we want to go on providing strong economic growth for the UK, keeping our little island as a top 10 global economy, we need to sort out our infrastructure. Part of this is affordable and secure energy supply. The fact is, without affordable fuel and energy we cannot reach our economic potential, when it comes to utilities, what was once a tool for making money to reinvest by the state has simply because the means of making money for hedge funds and overseas investors such as EDF (France) who own swathes of the industry .

In November 2013 YouGov discovered in a poll that the majority of Tory voters (52%) wanted the energy industry nationalised and overall 68% of those quizzed backed full state ownership. Labour chickened out in 2015. Ed Miliband’s instincts as a former Energy Secretary were for nationalisation, but still in thrall to the Tory Lite Blairites he baulked at what would have clearly been a vote winner, and something that would have showed certainty and self confidence in his leadership abilities.

Ed Miliband was a reputable Energy Secretary with progressive ideas for a green and diverse future despite others in the Cabinet often working against him. One of the most embarrassing things witnessed at the end of the last Labour Government saw Ed Miliband facing a furious TUC audience at a question and answer session where he was forced into a humiliating justification for why we were letting a wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight run by a company employing 700 called Vestas go to the wall, whilst spending billions on bailing out the chronically run Banking sector. Then, in 2011 it was announced that German giants Siemens, were coming to the UK to make, you guessed it, wind turbines.

To make matters worse in December 2009, whilst Miliband was in Copenhagen trying to secure a deal to reduce, not increase carbon emissions by the UK, the Labour Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis stated that the third runway at Heathrow Airport was the only way to secure jobs”. Labour must ensure that the green agenda along with energy is taken seriously.

This country isn’t facing an energy crisis, it is in one. The socially responsible policy must be to challenge the neoliberal legacy to ensure that energy prices are affordable. The Telegraph reported that the UK was only behind Estonia for fuel poverty, (fuel poverty being defined as households that spend more than 10% of their income on energy bills) In response to this Energy UK said “In 2011-12, suppliers spent £237.5m on providing voluntary assistance to around 2 million customers in or at risk of fuel poverty. Most of this money was used to provide financial support to households struggling with their energy costs.”  

What absolute nonsense. Profit trumps all and the reason for such appalling figures is the rip off culture of the energy companies with active connivance from the Tories and passive facilitation from the Labour Party. Hopefully now the Left are in charge this will change.

 Lisa Nandy and her Shadow Energy team must make nationalisation and democratic workers control their number one policy, and everything will flow from there.

However, as much as  the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats continue to fail on energy, Labour does need to hold its hand up from its time in power.

Whilst a number of hydro and biomass schemes were introduced, there was an over reliance on the use of wind and not enough done to diversify with solar and tidal power. In addition Labour did nothing to deal with the disgraceful behaviour of the energy companies.

There was a failure by the Blair/ Brown Governments to properly plan for the future. The reason was once again simple. The obsession with the market, which began with Margaret Thatcher and the privatisations the British National Oil Corporation in 1982, followed by British Gas in 1986.(If you see Sid, tell him!)

This meant that profit was the number one and seemingly only factor driving how the North Sea twist of fate was handled. So whilst the petro dollars continued to role in, and the Dash for Gas around the turn of the century masked the reality of CO2 problems, there was no incentive for the UK Government to diversify, and when the penny finally did drop in 2006 Tony Blair’s answer was to commission a whole new programme of nuclear power stations. But the economic meltdown of 2008 has largely put paid to the nuclear option, as the start-up costs are prohibitive. Then climate change must be factored in. France had to shut 40% of its nuclear capacity in 2003 due to a drought that resulted in a chronic shortage of water to cool the reactors and keep them safe.

We see, once again, another failure of neoliberal policy meaning that the politicians have failed to regulate the market either through ideology or sheer inertia. It has left us with a legacy of fuel insecurity, non-investment in green technology and worse of all sky high prices. This is why nationalisation is the only option. We tried it the market way. Guess what? It doesn’t work.

In the 1970s, during the three day week, the Unions (and by default the political system of nationalisation) were blamed for the lights going out. However now, in 2015, as we wake up the fact that privatisation and neo-liberalism has failed us we face the very real prospect of the lights going out again. Centrica chairman Rick Haythornthwaite (crazy name, crazy guy!)warned that the lights could go out unless the people stopped complaining about energy prices, this from a man whose company made a £2.7bn profit last year.

This country isn’t facing an energy crisis, it is in one. The socially responsible policy must be to challenge the neoliberal legacy to ensure that energy prices are affordable. Nationalisation is imperative.

The Daily Mail reported that in the 2013/14 winter 24,000 died in the UK as a result of cold the simple fact is that most illnesses are made worse by cold, those who have to choose between heating and foot will pick food. This all comes at a time when the statistics show that winters are getting colder and cold snaps more regular and longer.

These grim figures show that morally and logically the argument for a planned energy policy, and indeed an overall planned economy is an open and shut case. The public want it. Let’s hope the new Left orientated Labour Party can, and will deliver. They should start by encouraging Labour Councils to take more control and initiating clean energy via schemes such as using bio waste to generate methane based local energy.

Written with Danny Marten.






About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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