The price of gas: imports, repression and fuel poverty

21 Feb 2013 admin

In a deplorable attack on the right to protest energy giant EDF is attempting to sue 21 activists for £5mn in a civil action. The No Dash for Gas campaigners occupied West Burton gas power station for 7 days by scaling two of the three 91m high cooling towers, brave people. They are going to need this tenacity and resolve as EDF, who this week announced it earned £1.7bn in two months (and still increased the amount it charges 3.7mn households to access energy), threatens to saddle the activists with a life long debt of £300,000 each. If the case is upheld it could irreporably damage the climate movement – facing a community sentence for direct action is one thing, paying an exhorbiant amount of money to the company you were protesting against is quite another. No Dash for Gas have already responded with some nice ideas for solidarity actions. They’re quick and simple, so you could take one right now.

While the those involved in the climate movement consider how to most effectively resist EDF’s attack its worth considering the context in which it was made. West Burton is the first of a new generation of 20 gas fired plants that the government are planning on building but in addition they’re also increasing the amount of gas imported. This week the government regulator Ofgem announced that people would face higher energy bills, as the UK becomes more reliant gas imports, showing that gas is not the way to deliver affordable energy.

This winter over one in four UK households could not afford adequate heating. According to Ofgem in last twelve months the average gas bill rose by about 105 pounds. Fuel Poverty Action brought traffic to a stand still outside the Department for Energy and Climate Change last weekend as part of a week of action against rising energy prices. Their actions highlighted how the six largest energy companies (including EDF) have a monopoly over UK energy supplies. This has meant they can charge more and more for this basic resource. As these companies make record profits people are being left to freeze.

Fuel Poverty Campaigners outside DECC
Fuel Poverty Campaigners outside DECC. Copyright Martin LeSanto-Smith

The need for more gas imports is now being cited as the reason energy prices will increase further. Yet increasing the amount of gas imported into Britain isn’t the best way to provide cheap or clean energy. Studies from many sources show that associated emissions in the production and transportation of gas mean it’s not much cleaner than coal.

A future European gas market is currently being created and promoted by politicians, oil corporations and energy providers. In boardrooms across Europe a web of gas pipelines stretching from places as far away as Nigeria is being mapped out – the aim of this network is to move enormous amounts of gas across continents. When the energy reaches Europe, companies need a market to sell it on – subsidies, financial incentives and political support are being used to create just such a market. As the Libor scandal highlighted its primary purpose is to create profit rather than ensuring everyone can access energy. Prohibitive prices stop people in the UK accessing energy, in the other countries it is often both price and a lack of supply that keep people without power. In Nigeria, one of the biggest gas suppliers to the UK 70% of the population are without access to electricity and three-quarters of the population still using fuel wood for cooking.

It isn’t just lack of energy access that harms people at the extraction end of this politically motivated market. The Turkmenistani dictator, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who presides over one of the most corrupt and opaque regimes, is being funded and legitimised by western corporations and international financial institutions all keen to get their hands on the massive gas reserves within the country. In Azerbaijan, there’s a similar story, significant amounts of oil and gas have ensured western companies and MPs continue to extend support and legitimacy to the repressive Aliyev family, as vividly shown when Richard Morningstar, the US Ambassador to Baku, recently bowed to a statue of the late dictator Heydar Aliyev, father to Azerbaijan’s current autocrat Ilham Aliyev.

BP made a $90 million deal to extract Azeri crude and the money that Azeribaijani’s should get for that oil has directly been used to fund Aliyev’s repression. In recent months there has been an increasing number of protests in Azerbaijan with opposition candidates in October’s ‘elections’ being attacked and imprisoned. The vote-fixing and oppression, which characterised previous Azeri Presidential elections, will no doubt feature in 2013. In Platform’s book the Oil Road, which follows oil from Baku to Ingolstadt in Germany, a young Azeri activist Emil Omerov explains how this money is used to fund repression:

Did you see our big policemen on the streets with their long sticks? They take up six per cent of our national budget. Six per cent! Then a further 10 to 15 per cent goes to the army. You can see where the president gets his iron gloves.

Ofgem’s Chief Executive, Alistair Buchanan, acknowledged that alternative sources of power generated within the European region are a better way to deliver affordable energy:

Before the financial crisis the government had backed a visionary approach to energy on wind, water and nuclear.

While nuclear power still requires imported uranium (which in countries like Kazakhstan has creating a legacy of social and environmental problems as lands and water supplies are left polluted) renewables could provide us with more affordable energy that doesn’t come at the expense of other people’s rights, not to mention averting the worst impact of climate change.

It isn’t just the UK that’s dashing for gas, the European Commission has set out an Energy strategy that commits it to increasing gas imports in order to secure the “uninterrupted physical availability of energy products and services on the market”, what the UK and the EU should be concentrating on is how to ensure everyone can access energy. This not best achieved through sucking energy from all corners of the globe but by investing in renewables, increasing energy efficiency and ensuring energy is used to create increased social wealth not fuel further consumption.

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