Greenman's Occasional Organ

Ecosocialist. Syndicalist. Critical Techno-Progressive.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Green Answers Scargill And Monbiot

Last week I posted on the exchange between Arthur Scargill and George Monbiot on the Guardian website. Dave Howells, A Green Party Trade Union Group member from Gower has written a letter in response which he also circulated on the Green Party Trade Union Group E-list in case it did not get printed, so I am publishing it here. I do not agree with every point, but it is closer to my viewpoint than the arguments of Monbiot and Scargill.

To the Guardian -

Clean coal is a mirage.

Re Arthur Scargill's letter in support of coal (Guardian 8th Aug), no matter what the government's intentions, and George Monbiot's possible resignations about our energy situation, the future of nuclear power is hugely doubtful.
The answer to global warming is not nuclear power, because it is a massive, centralised and hugely expensive technology. It is aimed at perpetuating business-as-usual, ie. generating massive amounts of energy to enable us to carry on with our present lifestyle aimed at achieving "Progress" by means of eternal economic growth.

On pragmatic grounds the economic downturn is making such investments look increasingly risky, and so less likely. Investments are huge, and the payback time is a long way off. The world is slipping into economic slowdown while the cost of resources is increasing. Also, any large increase in nuclear generating capacity worldwide would mean even greater demand for uranium, and there are strictly limited reserves of this.

I have no reason to dispute Arthur's financial arguments, and the usual fiasco of the public eventually being made to foot huge bills to make the best of technological nightmares and writing off misguided private/political financial misjudgements. I agree with him too on the matter of nuclear waste still remaining an unsolved problem. Indeed, it is now looking overwhelmingly likely that, after all these years, there is really no solution. We are faced with the prospect that species of life that come and go on this planet from now on will have to live with this stuff for geological time.

I agree with Arthur too that we are sinking into an economic and political crisis of an unprecedented scale. Underneath the daily news of credit crunches, mortgages, employment and oil prices lies the increasingly voiced grassroots fear that the end of our current industrial lifestyle might wellbe much closer than is being publicly recognised. Our political system seems helpless in the face of this, and any form of competent leadership appropriate to the situation is completely absent.

I agree with him too that, for all the bad political decisions made in the past, the UK still sits on vast quantities of unexploited coal. I also agree with him that the UK has never had an integrated energy policy: when energy was cheap and in seemingly inexhaustible supply we never needed to.

However, I must fundamentally disagree with Arthur that coal can answer all our "needs" without causing harm to the environment. In his eyes the simple answer is to capture carbon dioxide produced by power stations and bury it.
However, if one looks at this claim realistically it quickly becomes unfeasible - or at least deeply dubious. In fact it seems that the idea is now failing.

As Arthur noted, only some 20 percent of the CO2 we produce comes from power stations. Secondly, most power stations are situated nowhere near any rock formations that would be suitable for burying the gas. Those that might be would find collection and pumping costs very large - indeed taking a sizeable percentage of the energy produced by the power station itself. The safety issues of burying the gas in or near any residential areas hardly bear thinking about. CO2 is colourless and odourless, and spending two minutes just breathing that would probably prove lethal.

Some may point to a few schemes already in operation. However, these are very few, overstated, and not at all representative of any broad commercial application. For instance, the hydrogen scheme in Peterhead, Scotland is planned in order to maintain pressure in a depleting North Sea oilfield, with the aim of wringing out as much oil as possible (and thus maximising financial returns for BP and Rio Tinto - with government backing).

At this point I feel that Arthur's letter becomes very misleading. His statement that "all existing and new coal-fired power stations should be fitted with clean coal technology - including carbon capture that would remove all CO2" could easily give the reader the impression that carbon capture is with us, and no obstacle to progress any more. That is most definitely not so. In fact the technology has not been developed at all yet, and there are no real genuine examples of it at all - anywhere in the world. But as usual promises abound, and dreams of widespread application are getting well out of step with reality.

UK energy policy has been talked about at length, but the pressure for business-as-usual remains as intense as ever - like a wolf in sheep's clothing. At the very least, any government that is serious about global warming would prohibit the building of any further coal and hydrocarbon power stations, and any other coal-processing industries (hydrogen,petrochemicals, etc), unless demonstrably workable carbon burial, specific to that project, is completely built in to the scheme from the very outset. Empty promises of retrospective bolt-on bits must be strictly not allowed.
We have to stop living on false promises.
Yours sincerely
Dave Howells
Green Party, Gower

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