Life in the Landscape of Hydrocarbons – Exit Strategy III

Article 1 Sep 2008 admin

By James Marriott – This article was first published in Platform’s Carbon Web newsletter, issue 10.

How was it that the marshes of Hoo St Werburgh – so good for grazing cattle and sheep, so rich in birdlife – were turned into a site for Kingsnorth Power Station – with its chimneys and access roads, its spoil fields and loading jetties? How were the oil companies involved in this process? And how might it be turned in a different direction?

Arguably the most important meetings in the development of Kingsnorth took place between 1948 and 1951, between Sir William Fraser and Hugh Gaitskell MP, Minister for Fuel & Power. Fraser was Chairman of the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), soon to be renamed British Petroleum. In 1947, the AIOC had purchased a fuel depot site on the southern edge of the Isle of Grain, aiming to develop it as a new refinery. While initial discussions were around a medium sized refinery, events soon transformed the plans into something much larger.

For in those early years of the Cold War, the Labour Government was keen to ensure a secure energy supply. This appeared to be in jeopardy when Iran nationalised its oil and threw out AIOC in October 1951. The AIOC had dominated the Iranian economy for 40 years, and in turn had become utterly dependent on Iran. The loss of these assets was devastating for the company – the refinery at Abadan alone contributed 80% of the company’s refining capacity.

The AIOC weathered this dramatic storm by laying off thousands of staff, by increasing production in Iraq and Kuwait, by rebranding itself as British Petroleum, and by building Britain’s largest oil refinery on the Isle of Grain – with the enthusiastic support of the government. The geopolitics of energy, refracted through a British corporation and the British Government, began to alter the landscape of the Hoo Peninsula.

BP’s Kent Refinery on the Isle of Grain began processing crude in February 1953. For the next 30 years it put out petrol, aviation fuel, diesel, fuel oil, bitumen and a wide range of products from crude oil imported from Kuwait, Iraq, Libya, Venezuela and elsewhere. The first oil from the Niger Delta was refined there after 1958, and the first oil from the North Sea was celebrated in 1975 with a special trip by hydrofoil down the Thames by the then Minister for Energy, Tony Benn MP.

By the time the refinery processed its last load of crude in 1982, its presence had utterly altered the Hoo Peninsula. The refinery expanded to obliterate the settlement of Wallend, while BP constructed workers’ homes across the peninsula. Middle management were housed in High Halstow, at a respectable distance from the refinery. Down the hill in Hoo they built an extensive new housing estate for the manual workers. The BP social club between the two later became the BAE Club – and then police headquarters during the Climate Camp.
Out of the heart of this new landscape rose two new power stations – Kingsnorth and Grain. Kingsnorth was planned in the early 1960s, and began generating in 1973. The plant was designed as a duel-fuel power station, burning coal and oil sourced from the refinery next door.

The Kent Refinery had effectively given birth – and then it died. In August 1982, the BP Kent Refinery began to close. Yet the legacy of the refinery’s operation remains long after. Wilfred Human of Strood’s widow is still trying to get compensation for her husband’s death. Mr Human worked for 22 years at the BP refinery and died of exposure to asbestos. The impact of the refinery remains in the water, soil, air and flesh of the Hoo Peninsula.

In 2003 BP announced its return to the Hoo Peninsula – the construction of a liquid natural gas terminal on the Isle of Grain, together with Sonatrach, the Algerian State Oil Company.
Gas extracted from deep beneath the Sahara Desert is piped 750 miles to the Mediterranean coast where it is pressured until, at -160 degrees, it turns to liquid – liquid natural gas (LNG). From the terminal at Skikda two dedicated LNG ships journey to Grain and back, taking 14 days for the round trip.
Once at Grain the LNG is regasified and passes into the pipelines bound for the National Grid. As the terminal capacity iexpands new pipelines are constructed to cross the peninsula. Gas from the Algerian desert passing silently by.

“There were up to 100 men who came into our village from three directions – they were here for at least three hours. We hid in the house, but they threw bombs through the windows and broke down the door with axes. My baby son Mohammed was five and they cut his throat and threw him out of the upper window. Then they cut the throat of my eldest son Rabeh and then my brother’s throat because he saw them kidnapping his wife and tried to stop them. They took some of the girls.”

This testimony is by one of the survivors of the slaughter of 349 villagers in Rais in Algeria on 29th August 1997. These killings were part of the civil war that raged in Algeria after the army-backed regime cancelled democratic elections in February 1992. Between 75,000 and 120,000 people were killed. The massacre at the village of Rais continued for three hours, only 500 yards from an army barracks.

At precisely the same time, 350 miles south of Rais, BP employees worked at an oil company camp in Hasi Messaoud, Algeria’s main oil installation. They operated behind three sets of electrified fences, patrolled by Doberman dogs and screened by cameras to supplement the army unit stationed outside the camp.

BP began operating at Hasi Messaoud in early 1996, after signing a £2.3 billion deal with Sonatrach at the height of the Algerian civil war. This decision could not have been taken without the agreement of the then Conservative Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind MP, probably following a meeting with BP CEO John Browne. Although by the mid-1990s the British government had sold all its shares in BP, the company still held a pivotal position in the British economy.

On 24th October 2003, seven years later, Ralph Alexander, BP Head of Gas & Power, announced a 20 year contract between BP/Sonatrach and National Grid to import LNG from Algeria to Grain – tying a connection between that distant desert and the Hoo Peninsula until 2025. And the arrival of Algerian gas had an impact on E.ON too – the following year it announced plans to build a new gas-fired power station at Grain.

The 40 generations that have farmed the Hoo Peninsula from the first Saxon settlements until the present day left a profound impact on the landscape, mostly noticeably in the reclaiming of the salt marshes. In the past three decades these marshes have become emblematic of the Peninsula. The spirit of the area is changing, from a place dominated by the hydrocarbon industry to a place of wildlife reserves – the RSPB own five on the Peninsula.

The struggle over Kingsnorth is, in part, a struggle over the future spirit of this place. We live in the shadow of decisions made between energy companies and government ministers – Sir William Fraser and Hugh Gaitskell between 1948 and 1951, the CEGB in the early 1960s and 1970s, John Browne and Malcolm Rifkind in the mid 1990s.

We know that there have been repeated meetings between Paul Golby, Chief Executive of E.ON, and Malcolm Wicks MP, Energy Minister. Once again the justification for a new coal plant at Kingsnorth is ‘energy security’ and worries over Russia and the dependability of the Middle East – just as it was 60 years ago. Will we follow the same tracks again, or can a new course be charted for the Hoo Peninsula and our energy infrastructure?

This essay originally took the form of a workshop given at the Camp for Climate Action in a field near Kingsnorth Power Station in August. 

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