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Planet pays the price for energy crisis

As the energy crisis deepens, global capitalism is scraping the bottom of the oil barrel, leaving behind ruined land and communities. Climate change campaigners occupying farmland earmarked for open cast mining in the Derbyshire countryside are highlighting one key aspect of this.

The “Leave it in the Ground” campaign has moved on to a 122 hectare site owned by UK Coal, which plans to extract 1m tonnes, but will no doubt aim for more once they get going. That is what happened at Stobbswood in Northumberland, where the original permission covered 1,500 acres for 15 years up to 2004. Extraction is only now coming to an end, with communities suffering years of coal dust, noise pollution and giant machines rumbling through their villages day and night.

Coal companies always claim they will restore the land but that is not the experience of people in Greengairs in Lanarkshire where an open cast mine was turned over to become Scotland’s biggest landfill. Their village was left on the edge of a stinking waste dump, and designated an “area of sacrifice”. Now a huge incinerator is planned to add to the pollution. This is the story right across the world. Governments support coal companies to override community opposition. In Bangladesh, protests against open cast mining by Asia Energy at Phubari were initially successful but now the military-backed government plans to give the London-based company the go-ahead.

And an even filthier form of extraction is on the rise, as oil sand extraction becomes economical. Oil sand is a mixture of clay, sand, water and bitumen, with an estimated 2 trillion barrels of oil available from massive deposits in areas such as Alberta, Utah and the Orinoco Basin. Currently, tar sands represent about 40% of Canada's oil production, and output is expanding rapidly. Around 20% of US crude oil and products come from Canada, and a substantial amount comes from tar sands. Whole areas are strip mined, and then a costly and polluting recovery process extracts the oil deposits. Two tons of sand produce just one barrel of oil and the extraction process uses vast amounts of energy, chemical solvents and water.

The question is can the planet survive capitalist energy markets? This week George Bush asked Congress to lift the decades-old ban on oil extraction in the Alaska wilderness. Now there is a drive to pump CO2 into spent oil fields, including in the north sea, to make the “dregs” accessible. Greenpeace warns that the risks of ecological damage are incalculable, and that in any case the retention time in the ocean is too short for it to be worth doing. Our prediction: the oil companies will soon be trying to get projects to pump waste CO2 into dying oil fields registered for subsidy under the Clean Development Mechanism.

Meanwhile the British government is planning to allow construction of eight giant coal-fired power stations, including the one at Kingsnorth in Kent which will emit around 8m tonnes of greenhouse gas a year. And to fuel it, the drive for strip mining will increase.

We have not even touched here on the issue of uranium mining, the most dangerous, polluting and health-damaging of all. Prime Minister Brown last week repeated his megalomaniac dream of a UK economic boom based on building a world-wide network of nuclear power stations. He also repeated the crazy offer of bribes to local councils agreeing to bury nuclear waste (in the town hall cellars presumably).

Yesterday the energy companies confirmed that domestic fuel prices will increase by up to 40% over the winter – whilst at the same time Alistair Darling was urging wage restraint (not on the bosses of the energy companies, obviously).

The growing contradiction between the market measures to meet capitalism’s energy needs, and the survival of ecology, human life and livelihoods, is now creating volatile social tensions. We need to strengthen the survival side of that contradiction, and create energy plans that prioritise the needs of people and planet – not profit.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
19 June 2008

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