openDemocracyUK

Mapping fossil fuel power

The complex web of interests maintaining the fossil fuel industry is being creatively exposed.

Robbie Stonecroft
10 June 2015
Didcot power station

Day of action at Didcot power station.

On 1st June, around 600 people attended a mass action camp in the shadow of Didcot power station in Oxfordshire – as part of international mobilisation ahead of the UN climate talks in Paris later this year.  This was a day of action against the fossil fuel industry with 18 interventions occurring across the country.  Here, Robbie Stonecroft reports how the industry, the government and the spin machines were all targeted  – mapping the structures of Big Energy in the political system.

Industry

The Big Six energy companies (RWE Npower, British Gas, EDF, Eon, Scottish Power and SSE) remain widely unpopular amongst consumers for regular price hikes and soaring profits.  The location of Reclaim the Power's action camp in the shadow of Didcot power station (owned by RWE Npower) highlighted the climate dimension to the Big Six's dominance – that as well as ripping us off, these companies own hugely polluting fossil fuel infrastructure and are pushing for more to be built.  Through workshops, training and actions, the camp aimed to join the dots between social, economic and environmental injustices of energy supply.

People arriving to the camp had joined affinity groups via a 'speed dating' process which matched people up according to their action interests (e.g. occupations, theatre, blockades, arts), how arrestable they were and any mobility issues.  Groups were then given a mission (or created their own) and spent time at the camp devising their action plans for 1st June.

Fight the NPower

The day of action kicked off with a blockade of the RWE Npower's office in Leeds - which deals with debt and pre-payment meters.  The office should be considered a site of economic violence – where arrangements are made to break into the poorest households to fit pre-payment meters which then charge a higher rate for energy use.  The rooftop of RWE Npower's national headquarters in Swindon were also occupied and a separate group of pensioners delivered a 'Bill of Wrongs' to British Gas's headquarters in Oxford demanding payment for the funeral costs of the 15,000 people who died last year from cold-related illnesses.  'Energy UK' – the Big Six's main trade body were also blockaded in London – protesting the organisation's lobbying against renewables and in favour of new fossil fuel power stations.  Anti-fracking 'Nanas' from Lancashire visited the gates of Didcot B gas-fired power station – making the connections between the government's push for fracking and the proposed construction of up to 30 new gas-fired power stations. In what could now be described as a tradition for Reclaim the Power, the Lichfield offices of major fracking firm Cuadrilla were also blockaded in the afternoon – complementing similar office occupations in Balcombe in 2013 and Blackpool in 2014.

Bill of Wrongs

A 'Bill of Wrongs'

Whilst the threat of new unabated coal stations in the UK was (mostly) defeated in 2009, many old coal-fired power stations remain stuck on the system, with new open cast coal mines opening up in Northumberland and South Wales.  The industry hopes that the promise of 'Carbon Capture and Storage' technology will allow the continued burning of coal rather than leaving it in the ground.  We can expect coal interests to be pushing this agenda at the UN climate talks in Paris this December (also known as COP21).  On Monday, we hit back at the industry with a blockade of a World Coal Association conference being held at the prestigious 'Institute of Directors' in London. The conference happened to coincide with Reclaim the Power's day of action and the delegates, some of whom had flown in from around the world, found themselves locked out of the building for most of the morning.

Locked out

Locked out.

Government

As the Big Six know well, their soaring profits and push for more centralised fossil fuel energy production would not be possible without the ideological support and free market rhetoric of Westminster and Whitehall.  In response to the Tory's majority election result, share prices for the Big Six energy companies and Drax power station jumped by around 6% as the threat of Labour's price freeze and tougher regulations evaporated.  

In bed with the big six

In bed with the big six

Illustrating this close relationship, activists staged a 'Big Six love-in' (a blockade in a bed) outside David Cameron's constituency office in Witney.  Comedy face masks aside, a revolving door between the energy industry and government also helps grease the wheels of the carbon machine.  The newly appointed Energy and Climate Change minister Andrea Leadsom, for example, has previously worked for ten years at Invesco Perpetual – an investment management company which owns 26% of Drax plc – the largest coal-fired power station in Western Europe and the biggest single emitter of carbon emissions in the UK.  Drax is currently planning to extend its polluting life by partially co-firing with biomass (wooden pellets) made from imported trees from the USA and Canada.  Drax also received around £1 million per day of public money in 'renewable energy' subsidies and is in line for a potential £900 million government grant to build the country's first new coal-fired power station – the White Rose project. 

Suitably, Invesco found the (literal) revolving door to its London Wall offices blocked on Monday with a banner dropped outside.  As one protester outside DECC commented, “We are now finding ourselves at a stage where we don’t know where government ends and corporations begin and unless we act now we will soon find ourselves be locked into infrastructure which will burn carbon for years to come whilst killing off renewable energy.”

Revolving door

The (literal) revolving door.

Over in Avonmoith, activists invaded a separate biomass site belonging to 'Boomeco' arguing that attempts to meet current energy demand with trees instead of fossil fuels is simply replacing one problem with another. 

Biomass protest

Despite the potential of renewables to deliver clean, affordable power, the government's energy policy aims to cut subsidies for onshore wind and a renewed dash for gas.  Making clear their thoughts on this, one group on Monday visited the Department for Energy and Climate Change with a 'Wind not Gas' message scrawled across their backsides.

Wind not gas!

Wind not gas!

The Tories' ideological commitment to fossil fuels runs down to the London Mayor, with Boris Johnson recently rejecting a near-unanimous vote by the London Assembly calling for its £4.8 billion pension fund to divest from oil, coal and gas. Instead Johnson has argued that “we should leave no stone unturned, or unfracked, in the cause of keeping the lights on.”  Reclaim the Power activists took the Mayor at his word and erected a makeshift fracking rig outside City Hall whilst blasting the sounds of a drilling operation into the building.

Boris says it's fine

Spin

Policy support from politicians also requires an adequate level of cultural buy-in from the public and London's booming public relations industry is all-too-willing to take a corporate buck to spin industry practices as both beneficial and sustainable.  Chemicals giant Ineos, for example, has pledged £640 million in fracking and chosen 'Media Zoo' PR firm to smooth over public opposition.  Seven activists occupied the firm's offices with a banner reading, “Fracking is Shit.  You can't polish a turd.”  There were seven arrests.

You can't polish a turd

You can't polish a turd...

Anti-nuclear activists also paid a visit to public relations firm Camargue, which represents RWE Npower and Horizon Nuclear Energy. One protestor, Clare Jones, stated: “The public has a right to be informed about the real dangers of nuclear – from cancer to contamination to climate change. For the cost of building one nuclear power station you could build over 1000 offshore wind turbines.”

Camargue blockade

Meanwhile in Victoria, Edelman PR company – a long-term target of climate protests,  was also visited by anti-fracking activists who produced a disturbing video drawing attention to the company's representation of the 'independent' Taskforce on Shale as well as highlighting previous astro-turfing activities to engineer grassroots consent. 

As long-argued by groups such as 'Liberate Tate' and 'BP or Not BP', major polluters also maintain their ‘social licence to operate' through sponsorship of cultural institutions and academic institutions.  

Monday saw a spoof PR team re-brand Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' at the Shell-sponsored National Gallery as well as calling for the re-instatement of sacked PCS Union rep Candy Udwin who has opposed management plans to outsource up to two thirds of the workforce.  Susan Milligan who took part in the performance said, “Privatisation and dirty oil sponsorship are intimately related. They’re both part of the creeping corporate takeover of our public institutions. The National Gallery is providing cheap PR to one of the world’s most destructive companies.”

Van Gogh protest

Another group visited the Department of Mining at Imperial College London – which has received more funding from fossil fuel companies than any other UK institution (£17.3m from Shell and BP alone) helping to boost its social networks and cultural credibility amongst graduates.  Back at street level, a team of 'subvertisers' were out in Oxford replacing bus stop advertising spaces with their own messages about consumerism, media ownership and climate change.

Actions like these can never detail the full mesh of power relations that keep us dependent on fossil fuels – the role of finance and the military are notable omissions from this list of targets.  Reclaim the Power aims to provide an entry point for new people to get skilled up and take action  with communities on the front line of new extractive industries – and to create space for positive alternatives to corporate power.  With international climate talks set to be dominated by polluter interests in Paris this December, and Tory austerity now off the chain for another five years, radical movements for social change need spaces to find each other, connect, grow and resist. The camp at Didcot saw lines of solidarity between fuel poverty, trade unions, fracking and climate groups deepen and mature – solidifying a base to weather the storm ahead. 

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