01 March 2008

Black Arts

Written by Published in Issue 8 - Fair Play Read 2269 times

As I contemplate my chosen industry, so many examples of unfair play crowd into my mind that I have difficulty processing them. I have witnessed such a mélange of trickery and worse over the years as the theocracies of fossil fuels and nuclear have defended the energy status quo – a suicidally dysfunctional status quo, as I see it. Some flashbacks, to illustrate my point

Sundsvaal, summer 1990, the lobby of a Swedish hotel. An American lobbyist for the coal and oil industries, a former US government official, sits surrounded by diplomats from OPEC countries. He is coaching them in the art of killing multilateralism. Tomorrow, scientists representing most of the governments on the planet have to agree the wording of a document setting out the threat of climate change. If they succeed, and the warning fairly reflects the intense concern evident in all referenced scientific journals, governments will have to start negotiations for a climate treaty with the aim of cutting coal- and oil-burning. The tutor wants his frowning students to negotiate the words ‘carbon dioxide’ out of the document. Oil ministry officials from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait will lead the effort to do so.

Barcelona, spring 1993. This time I am on a stage, at the global coal industry’s annual conference, debating with a zealous man who exhorts his audience, wild-eyed, to pay tribute to the American tutor lobbyist, who is fighting for America’s right to burn coal unhindered by ex-communists who are now posing as Greens. His audience claps him. Afterwards, I confront him, calm externally but struggling to extinguish a blaze inside. Does he really think that people who worry about climate change are all ex-communists? Face twitching with hate like a gunslinger in a spaghetti western, he tells me he rather does.

The man’s name is Harlan Watson. Fast-forward 15 years. He is now the lead climate negotiator for George W. Bush’s America.

Madrid, winter 1995. Having failed in Sweden, OPEC oil ministry officials from the hotel lobby tutorial pose as climate scientists as the United Nations endeavours to update its alarming warning on climate change. A whole band of American fossil-fuel lobbyists now ferry written instructions to the OPEC men, in full view of the genuine climate scientists. Their interventions trigger incredulous laughter from the scientists, the men and women from NASA and all the other government climate-research centres.

OK, you may say, that is America. Don’t extend their excesses to Europe, and anyway, things have changed since the 1990s, have they not?

Let’s quickly test thi s notion with a snapshot of the energy news in Europe, year to date.

Week One. The oil price has broken the record of late. UK utilities respond by hiking their gas and electricity bills. The average household energy bill is now more than £1,000 a year. No less an industry-friendly figure than Chancellor Alistair Darling asks the energy companies to justify their price rises. Within a few months, as this magazine goes to press, they will be declaring the biggest profits ever posted by British utilities. Most of these companies are owned by European giants who, so consumer group Energy Watch alleges, tacitly collude on price by hoarding gas in Europe, hoping to sell come the cold weather. The price for this profit maximisation will be paid, in part, in the tears of children crying for their dead grannies. In the UK, we count the people dying from hypothermia in their own homes each year in tens of thousands. In Finland, a somewhat colder country, such deaths are almost unheard of.

Week Two. Despite government promises to the contrary, UK consumers are being lined up to pay massive future nuclear bills. Several energy firms potentially interested in building nuclear stations (at some time too far in the future to make any difference either to climate change or to many deaths of grannies) have demanded long-term guarantees from government if they are to put up the c. £10bn investment to build each station. They are asking for a levy on bills to provide a decommissioning fund. They also want the government to build a waste repository with taxpayers’ funds, in which the energy companies will rent space, so avoiding the full costs of waste disposal. We will also have to pay for compensation of local communities where the nuclear waste site is built, security at potential sites, transmission of waste and any update needed to the electricity grid. The National Audit Office warns that liabilities accrued by the government to date include £70bn for existing nuclear waste and £5.1bn in bailouts for British Energy. Notwithstanding, the nuclear industry gets what it wants a few days later: the full gourmet menu.

Week Four. The EC imposes a fine on German utility giant Eon as part of an ongoing investigation into price-fixing. The fine, which could exceed a quarter of a billion euros, is for damage inflicted to the seal left on an office at the headquarters of Eon’s energy division in Munich during 2006. The office housed confidential documents seized in dawn raids in six countries relating to the allegations.

Week Five. BP and the Bush government have agreed a $40m settlement for an explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery in 2005, in which 15 people died. Subsequent enquiries by the US Chemical Safety Board have shown that BP stinted on safety at the refinery while cutting costs to please investors. The relatives of the dead are challenging the settlement. The fine fails to match the crime by a mile, they protest. Eva Rowe, who lost both parents in the blast, has this to say: ‘Was pollution BP’s greatest sin? BP’s greed murdered 15 people. $40m? BP’s profits in 2006 came in at $17,300m.’

Fair play? Forget it. Welcome to the world of energy as we know it.

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