Tuesday, 12 August 2014

British coal has key role to play in energy mix

The miner’s strike of 1984/5 is considered a landmark for the Labour movement, collective action taking on the individualistic neo-liberal economics of Thatcherism. The battle saw collective community resistance at its strongest yet in the final analysis the miners lost, returning to work after a year of struggle - with heads held high.

“Everyone knew this wasn’t about buying coal, it was about destroying communities , destroying collectivism. In those communities the strong supported the weak,” said Ian Lavery, former NUM president and now Labour Mp for Wansbeck and member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, who regards the strike as symbolic of Thatcher’s attack on trade unionism generally.

The government had made clear it was going to take on the trade unions from the moment it got into office, deploying a three pronged attack that involved using the law, the Murdoch dominated media and the scourge of unemployment.

The Thatcher government learnt the lessons of the earlier 1974 dispute, when the miners defeated Edward Heath’s administration, the final victory coming when the electorate kicked the Tories out on the question of who runs the country.

Thatcher’s Conservatives had prepared for the strike, stock piling coal at the power stations, making sure coal could be brought from overseas and substituting oil for coal at the power stations.

The government also turned the police into a quasi-military force, with virtual blanket immunity for their misdemeanors. “Some 10,000 miners were arrested during the strike but there were no criminal charges or disciplinary actions taken against the police. Policemen have since admitted committing grievous bodily harm in the strike,” said John Alderson, the former Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall.

The government, via its henchman at the Coal Board, Ian MacGregor, lied to the miners and the country, declaring that only 20 pits would close, with the loss of 20,000 jobs. NUM general secretary Arthur Scargill claimed the true figure was 70 pits, with 68,000 jobs going. Earlier this year, Arthur was proved right when the government  papers for the time proved that the plan had been to close 70 pits all along. The papers also revealed that the government had contemplated bringing the troops into break the strike.

Today, there are just three deep mine pits operating with two of these due to close shortly. The Tory government  reeked a terrible revenge on the mining communities. The work disappeared and there was little effort made to replace it. There are people in the mining communities that have never worked again. Drug and alcoholism levels have gone up in many areas due to the devastation caused. The human legacy has been well documented, however, less well known is the resultant damage caused to Britain’s energy security.

The NUM nicely summarises the situation. “ Most of the nation's collieries have been closed, we are now at the mercy of foreign importers and gas and oil prices are rocketing. Our own gas and reserves have been depleted at an alarming rate as we have squandered them in massive quantities in gas-fired power stations when we could have used coal. At the same time access to the indigenous coal reserves is severely restricted by the closure of coal mines. At the same time we have been squandering the talents of our skilled workforce by making them redundant,” said a spokesperson for the NUM.

In its desire to smash the miners and mining industry generally the Conservative government has created an insecure energy situation, where Britain remains dependent on coal for 40% of the fuel to service power stations but over 90% of this comes from overseas. Some 38% of the coal supplied to the UK comes from Russia. “How unstable is that, relying heavily on Russian coal to keep the lights on in this country,” said Ian Lavery.


Yet instead of look to reignite the mining industry in the country, the Coalition government chooses instead to plunge toward shale gas exploration and the nuclear option.


The obduracy of government in this area is illustrated by the fact that it is prepared to subsidise new nuclear sources of energy like EDF’s Hinckley power station project to the tune of guaranteeing twice the standard electricity price.


Britain now produces around 15 million tonnes of coal a year and employs fewer than 6,000 miners.


Last year, the British Geological Survey estimated that over 17 billion tonnes of coal remain in British coalfields, enough to provide power for 300 years.

Ian Lavery believes that the resurrection of the coal industry in the UK should provide a large part of any future plan for energy provision. He believes there should be between 10 and 15 mega pits created with carbon capture and storage technology fitted. “If carbon capture and storage technology is fitted there is near zero emissions,” said Ian, who believes the CCS technology would satisfy any environmental concerns of reviving coal. The UK is statutory bound to reduce its greenhouse gas  emissions by 80% by 2050.

The TUC together with the Carbon Capture and Storage Association recently published a report showing how the technology could create thousands of jobs across Yorkshire, the Humber and the Tees Valley. It is estimated the technology if developed could  create 6,000 jobs across Yorkshire – adding £245m to the regional economy. The long-term economic benefits to the region could be as high as £26bn by 2050. .

The research also found that the development could reduce wholesale electricity prices by 15 per cent compared to the cost of decarbonising the economy without CCS – leading to an average cut in household bills of £82 a year.

There have been some encouraging signs on this front recently with the government investing £100 million in the CCS White Rose project at the largest coal fired Drax power station and in Peterhead, with the EU providing a further £200 million.

Ian contrasts the government’s attitude to the coal industry with it’s gung ho attitude to shale gas. This approach sees planning laws being relaxed to allow private companies to frack on people’s land without permission. Shale gas though is a fossil fuel, so pursuit of its exploration as opposed to coal with CCS will not cut emission levels to the statutory required levels.

Ian argues that coal offers the perfect solution. He does though insist that a reborn coal industry would have to operate under public ownership because only such an arrangement could provide the investment levels necessary to develop the mega-pits. “If coal got the same subsidy as renewables and shale gas, the deep mine industry would be easily viable,” said Ian, who believes the answer to the UK’s energy needs should be a combination of home produced coal, oil, gas, nuclear and renewables. Coal could provide 35 to 40% in this mix. “The plan could bring jobs, skilled apprenticeships and security of energy supply,” said Ian.

The mega-pit  plan could lead to the employment of 40,000 to 50,000 people and secure the energy needs of the country.

 “The Government should act now and ensure that an indigenous coal industry is retained otherwise we will continue to have to import coal in larger quantities at a price determined outside any control of the Government,” said and NUM spokesperson.

There will though have to be a change in the political climate if the domestic coal industry is to be revived under public ownership. The industry is still regarded as a political football, despite all the economic, security and environmental indicators pointing in its favour

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Historical amnesia and lack of political context marks World War I commemorations

The commemoration of the 100 year anniversary of the outbreak of World War I has been moving but totally lacking in political context. The appalling loss of life in this grotesque conflict marked a total breakdown of the international political system. The historical memory has also been selective. There has been no mention of the economic and political landscape of Europe at the time. It was not just in Russia that revolutionary forces were stirring, in Britain too there was huge industrial unrest and in other countries in Europe. It is not a cynical view that the rulers of the time might well have welcomed a war that would suddenly draw working people into another bloody conflict on the behalf of those who owned capital. Listening to some, it would seem that the ludicrous propaganda that this was the war to end all wars is still believed. The reality is that 20 years later an even bigger and more costly war broke out. Nothing had been learned, the seeds of World War II were laid in the Versailles peace accords, punishing Germany in the way that they did. What the past century has really marked is the evolution of ever more deadly weaponry. By 1939, war could be taken much further into civilian centres, thereby increasing the number of civilians killed. Out of World War II came the ultimate weapon the nuclear bomb, that could destroy the whole planet. Within 17 years of the end of World War II, the world was brought to the brink of destruction as it looked as though a nuclear conflict was about to erupt over the Cuban missile crisis. The progression of ever more dangerous weaponry continues with drone warfare. This remotely controlled technology allows the leaders of the aggressor nation to operate even more easily in their own moral vacuum. Unless checked, in time drone warfare will make the slide to total war even quicker to achieve. Then the final great irony of this commemoration is that it comes at a time when thousands of people are being slaughtered with high tech weaponry in Gaza whilst the world looks on. There is a hollowness about the words of politicians like David Cameron about the 1914/18 war, when it is remembered that Britain continues to supply weaponery to Israel to kill Palestinians in Gaza. It was this type of double standard that brought about World War I in the first place, so maybe the real reflection should be what has really changed in 100 years? * Independent - 6/7/2014 * Ilford Recorder - 7/7/2014 * Wanstead Guardian - 14/8/2014

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Eastbourne pier fire turns tourist and Prime ministerial attraction

One of the sillier media comments, as the fire tore through the amusement arcade of Eastbourne’s 170 year old pier was how its loss would hit tourism to the town. The comment came as part of an initial sort of hysteria built up by the media on a hot Wednesday evening, trying to make the fire on the pier seem a greater event than it was. There was a lot of early hype particularly in BBC broadcast reporting about the whole pier having gone and the effects on tourism. Now with all the will in the world, people come on holiday to Eastbourne for many reasons: to walk on the downs, swim and play on the beach, watch the air show, Airborne and attend the tennis tournament in the week before Wimbledon but few come purely for the pier itself. The pier is a background factor that helps make the town the pleasant place that it is but it would be true anorak or pier spotter who came purely to the town just to go on the pier. Until the fire that is. The way in which the story of the fire took hold in the media was almost more combustable than the pier itself. I was on the beach that afternoon having a swim. All was peaceful on a warm day, with clear blue sky overhead, there was no sign of what was pending a few hundred yards away to the left. I had got home, when a friend texted to say: “hope your not on the pier.” She’d seen the initial pictures on the news bulletins. The news of the fire seemed to get out from people on the beach, taking pictures on their phones and emailing them. The local paper must have cursed as the fire broke out,the biggest story of the year, just as that week’s paper was going to press. Credit though where credits due, the Eastbourne Herald came up with 11 pages of picture and reaction with a spectacular picture of a blazing pier on the front page. Most of the coverage was done in a hastily put together wrap around the main paper. The burning pier was soon featuring on BBC national news bulletins and BBC and ITV local news. The tragedy factor was emphasised with a series of talking head pieces, often featuring the Lib Dem MP Stephen Lloyd who was quickly on the scene. The leader of the council was another popular talking head. An assortment of locals and not so local were found to express their surprise, outrage and dismay. The disappointing thing as the evening wore on was the seeming inability of reporters to explain what exactly was going on, So Rebecca Williamson of BBC South East did an evening news report full of talking heads but inexplicably failing to say whether the fire was out and the extent of the damage. At this stage there seemed to be a deliberate effort to hype the fire and give an impression that the whole pier had gone up. In reality it was less than a third - the amusement arcade complex. The area was cordoned off. Constant references were made to the other local piers at Brighton and Hastings that had also gone up in smoke. Little mention that the damage to Eastbourne was far less than the other two blazes that took practically both piers, not just one part. The papers the next day picked up on the story, with the Times and Independent among those carrying the dramatic pictures a of the pier ablaze on the front page. Further reports appeared inside. The Guardian carried the story inside, then the next day had a huge picture of the pier forming its eyewitness feature across two pages. The day after the broadcast media arrived in force. BBC South East sending a presenter, reporter and even the weather came from the beach. More talking heads. I returned to the beach the following afternoon, where little had changed. There were people on the beach and in the sea. The only sign of “the tragedy” was a now charred edifice on the skyline, where once there had been the amusement arcade. In the sea, there were also some remnants as I swam around hitting stray bits of charcoal. The story though certainly had legs, stretching on into Friday, when who should arrive in town but the Prime minister and Chancellor. The fathers of austerity were here to see what had happened and offer £2 million of government money to help with the restoration. Some wondered why David Cameron and George Osborn had arrived in town, though it is a Tory marginal. Some wondered if the two would be visiting the town’s foodbank on the way home – one of the largest on the south coast – with cheque book open. And so the story goes on. Questions like what or who caused the fire remain to be answered. Who will pay for what is another interesting point, given that the pier is privately owned and insured. The poor stall holders who have now lost their businesses were not. The people deserving the credit were the fire brigade, who dealt so expertly with the fire, ensuring that most the pier was saved. All no doubt will be revealed in the fullness of time, as the story rolls on. The great irony is that despite my misgivings when the BBC reported on its national news about the significance of the pier to tourism in Eastbourne, the prophecy is now proving right. As a result of the fire people are flooding to the town. The pier no doubt has drawn in more people over the past three days than at most times in its recent history. The way in which the story took off has been incredible. No doubt the silly season, social media, all played an important part in sending the story round the world and back. But it also seems to have galvanised politicians and decision makers into action – no mean feat in this day and age. So misreport or not the saturation coverage of the Eastbourne pier fire has certainly suddenly provided the town with international fame. * Morning Star - 12/8/2014

Friday, 1 August 2014

Double standards on Gaza

Foreign secretary Philip Hammond illustrates just what a grotesque set of double standards this country operates when it comes to foreign policy. Sanctions are apparently perfectly justified against Russia for its action in relations to Ukraine. A different set of standards though apply to Israel.Hammond can argue about the use of the words proportionate or disproportionate in relation to the unmitigated killing of men, women and children in Gaza. Whilst the BBC and others hype up Hamas rockets, tunnels etc to make this appear in some way a fair fight, the casualty figures tell an altogether different story. Some 55 Israelis (overwhelmingly soldiers) killed compared to more than 1,200 men, women and children killed by the Israeli attacks. This is slaughter on a mass scale and it is a sign of just how inane the West has become in that it can sit by and watch it happen..or in some cases even seek to justify it. Published Independent - 31/7/2014