Saturday, 26 September 2015

Conservatives and Their Lack of Energy

If one looks at the government website on low carbon technologies, from July one will find a flurry of activity.  All of this can be summed up in the government claim of controlling the cost of renewable energy.

You have probably heard that the power supplier Drax has announced yesterday morning they are pulling out of the carbon capture scheme, only one of two large-scale experiments (the other being in Peterhead), as a response to government cuts on renewable energy - in this case biomass fuel.

Likewise, support for small scale (less than 5MW) solar electrical generation are being withdrawn, and feed-in tariff support (that is the payments made for solar-generated electricity by small-scale suppliers) are being slashed and ended early.  Hundreds of small firms, importers and thousands of households that have already installed solar PV, and who were relying upon the goodwill and constancy of government policy have been ruthlessly betrayed.

Add to this also the Conservative's decision to block all onshore development of wind turbine technology and cut support for offshore wind farms, one can only conclude that it is all-out war on renewable energy itself.  Pretty much every green policy introduced by the Liberal Democrats during the last parliament is under attack.

That being the case, let's instead see what the Conservative's favoured technologies are.  Fracking and nuclear.

Now, I am not against fracking per se, as long as high standards and correct oversight are put in place.  In that, as I have blogged before, the Collation record was not bad at all.  That has changed since the Conservatives has returned to single-party rule; reversing decisions to protect national parks for instance.  No matter: Unfortunately, especially for those of us who work in the oil energy, the bottom has fallen out of the market.   The oil price has literally halved since last year.  This is good news for energy consumers (aren't we all) but at these times it means that the industries invest nothing into exploration.  Last week the Telegraph reported that in the North Sea - and I am taking this to mean for the entire basin (UK + Europe), 65,000 jobs have gone.  This would be about right.  For example: yesterday it was leaked that major oil service company Halliburton will be announcing a second round of cuts within the next two weeks; this being in addition to the 14,000 jobs they have already shed.  I am still in the industry but hanging on by the fingernails: my employer are cutting staff by thirty percent and there is no guarantee this is going to be the end of it.   OPEC is predicting the oil price will return to eighty dollars a barrel but not before 2020, while the great vampyre squid, Goldman Sachs, is now in bear mode, predicting that the oil price will remain low for the next fifteen years.  Frankly I don't believe that though.  Goldman have always played their own game.

One should also note that the fall in the fossil fuel price means lower consumer prices, therefore the burden of the renewable fuels levy is lessened as prices fall overall.  Since the Conservative cuts were announced in July after the price has fallen, it rather goes to show that the claim of reducing the burden upon the consumer is a red herring: the markets are making it happen anyway.

The last bit of the jigsaw is nuclear.  On this the Conservatives have sought to buck the market by guaranteeing the £2billion investment by the Chinese, This is only part of the total £24billion that the new Hinkley Point C power station, led by French company EDF.  All this is done with guaranteed (and high) prices for the electricity due to be generated.  Hinkley Point is just one of the  sixteen new nuclear power stations planned, all open to foreign investment.  One must assume that the government is also willing to underwrite other shortfalls in investment, plus allow for artificially high prices once the electricity is being produced.  Remember that a government underwriting  an investment means that any profits remain private, while losses are addressed from the public purse.

Both nuclear and renewables address needs just for electricity. Although it remains to be seen whether the Volkswagen diesel scandal will result in a profound change in direction, I cannot see electric cars dominating within the next fifteen years.  Some form of hybrid fuel use is more likely.  This is just for personal transport: long distance vehicles and marine transport will still be reliant on the sticky black stuff.

So what have we got?  Any form of local, small scale, renewable energy will soon no longer have support from the government.  Onshore wind turbines farms are out, and this effects the offshore market as well.  If their policies are allowed to continue, the Conservatives will kill the renewable industries in Britain.  Scotland has the political power to continue but is pretty well on course to be self-sufficient in renewable electrical generation anyhow.  In order for the process to effectively continue, England really has to be committed to it.

Similarly in oil and gas, fracking is not going to happen, at least for now, because of the low energy prices.  One might think that with the cutbacks and the low cost of exploration at this time, that now would be an excellent time explore.  It does not seem to work that way.  During downturns, energy companies just concentrate on the basics: cashflow and dividends first, maintenance after.  The cost of exploration and expansion comes out the surplus generated during high oil prices.

The low oil prices will also accelerate the decommission of the North Sea fields.  If the cost of maintaining the fields outweigh what they are earning, they will simply be shut down.  At this time, 140 (yes, one hundred and forty) fields are up for decommission.  This reflects the running down of the North Sea.  For both oil and gas, production levels are now under thirty percent of their peak levels in the late 1990s.

All this could be explained by the Conservatives perverse and short-term addiction to free-market economics.  It certainly does not add up to any dedication to the much-vaunted term "energy security".  Britain is already a net importer of oil and gas and under current policies that is only set to increase.

Why is it that nuclear is different?  What is so special about Hinkley Point C that those arch free-marketeers that are Cameron's Conservatives, feel the need to set aside up to £2billion of our money to ensure it goes ahead?  One cannot help but wonder if it has nothing to do with energy security,  for which the government seems not to care two jots about, and more to do with defence.

In 2010, David Cameron and President Sarkozy signed the Lancaster House Treaty, which provides for cooperation and close integration, not only between the two nation's military forces, but also joint supply and manufacturing.  The treaty is in force for fifty years so effectively by its end, UK and French military will be totally interchangeable.  Part of this process is nuclear forces.  Everything has a shelf life and nuclear weapons are no different.

Perhaps Hinckley Point C is to be part of this nuclear supply chain.  Who knows? We might even get some electricity out of it as well.

What is clear though, is that as far as energy supply and climate change, the Conservatives are content to leave all that to the free markets.  They simply could not care less.

No more pictures of Dave with huskies.  Given recent revelations with his interactions with other species, perhaps that is not a bad thing.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Liberal Democrat Conference 2015: Scrapping Trident.

The Motion.

Scrapping Trident

1 Conference notes that the go-ahead for building Successor submarines
2 for the Trident system is scheduled to be decided upon in 2016.
3 Conference believes that British possession of nuclear weapons is
4 inappropriate and unhelpful to today’s needs.
5 Conference rejects the projected spending of £100billion on the system
6 over its lifetime, believing the money could be better spent.
7 Conference therefore calls for the plans to renew the Trident system to
8 be scrapped, and for the earliest decommissioning of the existing Trident
9 forces.

Amendment One
14 conference representatives
Mover: Baroness Jolly (Defence Spokesperson) Summation: Rt Hon Sir Simon Hughes
1 Delete lines 3–4 and lines 7–9.
2 After line 6, insert:
3 In line with our existing policy as set out in policy paper 112, Defending the Future – UK Defence in the
4 21st century (2013), and our recent General Election Manifesto, conference resolves to oppose like-for-
5 like replacement of the Trident system as proposed by the Conservative government.
6 Conference believes that the ‘Maingate’ decision to proceed with Trident replacement is such a
7 fundamental question affecting the UK’s national interest that it should be subject to a binding vote in
8 Parliament and not simply a government decision; and calls on Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians to vote
9 against any such proposal should it come before Parliament.

Two things are obvious.  The majority of the party are against the continuation of the Trident system.  The leadership, in whatever incarnation it takes: Ming, Nick and now Tim, are determined to keep it, despite anything said to the contrary.  It sincerely pains me to write that but one has to go on the evidence.

Okay, let's do the common ground stuff.  There is not a Liberal Democrat that likes nuclear weapons.  Where the party is split is between those of us who follow a multilateral approach: seeing a global lowering of all nuclear weapons, verses those (myself included) who wants to get rid of Britain's nuclear missiles.

The key to the motion above is:
"conference resolves to oppose like-for-like replacement of the Trident system as proposed by the Conservative government."
In other words, the parliamentary party would be pretty much free to decide whatever they like, short of supporting Conservative and (until recently?) Labour policy of replacing four Vanguard-class boats with four Successor-class boats.  This is so fundamentally against the will of the majority of the party that the amendment deserves to be, ought to be, rejected out of hand by conference.

The original motion has been criticised by Tim as it does not specify what comes next.  That is intentional for leaves room for further debate within the party whether to continue with some form of nuclear deterrent or whether we should recommend that Britain should not continue with the ownership of nuclear weapons.

I think that Baroness Jolly's motion and, I am sorry to say this, Tim's support, is based upon the fear of looking weak or irresponsible with the nation's defence.  I am sorry folks but as a party we have been the epitome of responsibility for five bloody years and look where it has got us.  In today's politics, we have to stop fearing what other people might think of us and just be ourselves.  Saying what we think and acting upon it has worked for the SNP and it has worked for Jeremy Corbyn.  Why cannot it work for us?

For what it's worth, here is what I think:

Nuclear weapons do nothing to add to the UK's security.  While multilateralism is good in theory and showed some promise in the past, the major nuclear powers have taken the decision to renew their primary ICBM systems.  Britain looks set to follow suit and with eight MPs, we are powerless to stop it.  We don't have to be a part of it though.  Let us take this opportunity to stand up and stand against it, here and now.

I urge all those attending conference to support the motion and reject the amendment.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Corbyn's Victory

A friend of mine asked my opinion on Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide victory of the Labour leadership election.  Here goes but first a little history.

After John Smith died in May 1994, Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party.  With his rebranding of it as New Labour and the dropping of Clause IV* from the party’s constitution, it was clear that the party of Left had abandoned socialism.  I did ask socialist friends at the time whether they would continue to support Labour.  May of them did not. 

It was clear that Labour under Blair was attempting to win power not by attempting to convince people of the justice of their policies but rather by following the voters.  This they did and in some ways they were even further to the right than the Conservatives.  Selling off of public assets continued at an increased  rate compared to the previous Tory government and, after a economically cautious first term, public spending vastly increased.  By use of PFI (Private Finance Initiatives) schemes and similar, much of the spending was off-books.  Public structures would be built by private industry and then leased back to the government on the long term basis - usually twenty five to thirty years.  This has proved to be a deeply expensive way of doing things and certainly helped in overheating the economy during the last decade.  When the crash came, the government was already deeply in debt.  Certainly the downturn would have been the right time to loosen the public pursestrings but that relies upon governments building up reserves during the good times.  Most of gold reserves had been sold off at less than $500 an ounce.  Later it topped $1800 and today is still around the $1100 mark.  Instead, there was little choice but to go for has come to be known as the policies of austerity.  Or cuts, to put it bluntly.

Labour had ditched its socialist identity and frankly lost credibility on economic management.  The question had to asked “What is the Labour Party for?”  During the election of 2015 and in the face of clear identities offered by both the Conservatives and nationalists parties, it was a question that Labour was unable to answer with any conviction.  Simply being not the Tories is no longer enough.

Out of the candidates for the Labour leadership, three out of the four could fairly be described as New Labour.  Andy Burnham especially so: as he realised that the membership was more left-leaning than many Labour MPs, he typically went vote chasing.  

Jeremy Corbyn was elected as an MP in 1983, very much dark days for the party.  Thatcher’s first tern had been a disaster and she was only saved from defeat by victory in the Falklands War.  He is a socialist, he predates the creation of New Labour and even the internecine wars of the 1980s which saw the Labour leadership expel hardline socialists and communist members from the party.  Corbyn is very much Old Labour and fair play to the guy: he has stuck to his principles for all those decades.  It is little wonder that his political visibility had been lower than a snake’s belly, until now at least.  

I think that Corbyn has been the beneficiary of popular disillusion with mainstream politics.  Many on the left of the political spectrum took up Labour’s offer of £3 membership in order to vote.   Some on the right too, apparently, as they see Corbyn as a dinosaur and hope that his victory makes Labour unelectable.  

The big question though is will Corbyn be able to return Labour to the party to socialism, or does he even desire to do that?  With eight senior members (so far) having either resigned this afternoon or previously have indicated that they would not serve under Corbyn, it looks like that New Labour is prepared for what they see as a fight for the soul of the party.  

Personally I would welcome it if Labour did return to socialism.  After all, while I do not agree with some socialist solutions they are always worthy of consideration.  Readers in America may recall that we in Britain already have many of the things that Bernie Sanders are calling for the US to introduce, such as universal healthcare, which we like very much.   The left is necessary in a functioning modern democracy.  Often the questions that they pose require addressing, and sometimes, just sometimes, even their suggested solutions are not bad.  No party or outlook has a monopoly on wisdom and people deserve to have credible and electable parties to represent their views.  That does mean in the United Kingdom that it is necessary to change the voting system.  If a Single Transferable Vote system is good enough for the Labour Party to elect its leadership, it certainly should be good enough to elect MPs to Westminster.  The First Past the Post voting system, designed for a two party system, is not credible for today’s multifaceted and increasingly sophisticated electorate.

Does Corbyn’s win bode well for Bernie Sanders in the US?  The two certainly have similarities: unsupported by the media (Corbyn certainly has been monstered by several media outlets here, including the BBC, and I don’t expect that to stop any time soon) and both certainly to the left of the mainstream and command a large amount of grassroots support.  The latter point is critical: Sanders is not going to get the media exposure that others will, both in the Democrats and the Republican Parties.  He is probably not going to receive major corporate backing and all of his opponents are going to totally outspend him.  He could probably learn a thing or two from Corbyn’s campaign and I would be surprised if there isn’t already contact between the two camps.  

Back in the UK, Labour under Corbyn might have a hope of resurrecting its fortunes in Scotland.  If he does manage to rebrand and rebuild Labour into a socialist party, or at least something approaching it, no longer will the SNP be able to claim that they are the true party of the left.  (They are not anyhow, but that’s a story for another day).  Corbyn may well win some support back from the Greens too, as many of that party are openly socialist.  It may be good for my own party too, the Liberal Democrats, if Labour does go leftward.  The Conservatives are obviously in their true rightwing colours without the LibDems in government to restrain them and a vacuum may well open in the centre ground.  The Liberal Democrats are in a good position to fill it, should that occur.

To summarise: Corbyn has his work cut out in taking on the right wing of his own party.  Should he manage to unite Labour and draw it leftwards, that would certainly be both good for the democratic process and may even reinvigorate the Labour movement.  Personally I cannot see New Labour leading the party anywhere good.  It may have had thirteen years of power but it ate its own heart out in the process.

For the record, if I was a member of the Labour party (and that is a cold day in Hell), I would have voted  for Yvette Cooper.

* Clause IV: To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015


With the government yesterday announcing that the UK now has armed drones, perhaps now is the time to writing about my own brush with those who handle the technology.

It was all a series of coincidences really: the kind of thing that can only really happen if one goes regularly to the more troubled parts of the world.  On one of my first flights out to Israel, it must have been winter 2008, I was sitting next to a banker on a BMI flight from Heathrow to Tel Aviv.  We talked a little but not much.  One could not help but notice the illustration of the Predator-like aircraft on the cover.  Noticing my interest, the document was hastily put back into a case.
Financing an arms deal, I thought sniffily.

Some months later, while staying in the Dan Panarama Hotel, Haifa, I bumped into a group of young folk staying there.  Nice bunch.  British.  At first I assumed they were there for the Maccabiah Games (A Jewish-only athletics event, similar to the Olympics in concept) which were on at the time.  One evening though I met them out on the town.  They were being a bit rowdy (nothing much) and one of their number shouted "You lot!  Shut up and listen."  Instantly the whole group fell quiet.

My eyes goggled and head spun with the realisation.  "You guys are military!"

And so they were.  British Army, Royal Artillery, on secondment to private industry, training in Israel on drone technology.

In 2009, British drones were for surveillance only.  Things have obviously changed now.  However, my story of being among the drone folk is not quite over.

It was my last night in Israel, so that must have put it a couple of years afterwards.  I was in Mike's Bar, in Tel Aviv, famous for being a regular target for terrorist bombs at one point.  Early evening, and apart from the staff there was only one other customer.  Lean, tanned, mid-forties.  We chatted and exchanged pleasantries.  I told him what I did then asked over his business.

He looked at me doubtfully.  "I could tell you but I'll have to kill you," he joked.  I hope it was at least.  I considered him and took a calculated punt.

"You're working on the drone project aren't you."
"Bloody hell!  How did you know that?  Who are you?"
"I stayed in the same hotel as the Royal Artillery lot.  Nice bunch of kids."
He relaxed and then started chatting.  We didn't talk much about the drones but he had really interesting things to say about the Iraqi super-gun and it's inventor, Gerald Bull.  Dr Bull was subsequently assassinated by Mossad at his front door in 1990.  

I did ask a couple of questions.  Apparently the business model for the drone's usage in Afghanistan was that the British Army owned no drones.  Instead they rented them by the hour from the company.  That way they remained completely off-books.  Must have been a hell of a rental rate though.

During this recollection, I have purposely avoided giving out any company names and there is a simple reason for that: at no time did any individual I spoke to disclose any such information.  If one were to go online and Google the topic, it is not difficult at all to join the dots.

It seems that British military drone technology has moved on since 2009.  Now the UK have joined the US and Israel in using these weapons for assassination purposes.  Drones seem to be a pretty blunt weapon though.  In Afghanistan, the Americans wiped out quite a few wedding parties, maybe just to kill one or two target individuals.  Not the way to win either hearts or minds.