A European Commission state aid notice published on March 23 has shown how EU member state governments can work directly against agreements they make at EU level, in this case on combatting climate change. The Commission said it would open an investigation into Estonian state aid that will underpin the construction of two highly-polluting power plants.
The plants, to be built at Narva on Estonia’s border with Russia, will be fuelled by oil shale. This is, essentially, porous rock from which hydrocarbons can be squeezed. It presents many environmental problems. It produces more greenhouse gas than coal, and also poses a huge headache in terms of its mining and waste disposal. As this EU report says, “production of a barrel of shale oil can generate up to 1.5 tons of spent shale, which may occupy up to 25% greater volume than the original shale”. Oil shale is in any case a fairly crappy, low-grade fuel. The same report notes that “the heating value of oil shale is limited. In the best cases, it is comparable to that of brown coal or average forest residues, but less than half of that of average bituminous coal”.
Estonia is pretty much the only country where electricity is generated on a big scale by burning oil shale. In fact, Estonia gets most of its electricity from burning this dirty fuel. Instead of weaning itself off oil shale, and diversifying into renewables, the Estonian government wants to give up to €75 million per year, for the next 20 years (so €1.5 billion) to subsidise more burning of oil shale and lock itself into highly polluting electricity generation well beyond 2020.
This seems very shortsighted to say the least, especially from a government that has signed up to EU targets to reduce emissions by 20 percent by 2020 compared to 1990, and to increase the renewables share in the energy mix to 20 percent.
But the Estonians are not the only ones undermining the EU’s climate goals. Should the subsidy be allowed to go ahead, the power plants in Narva will be built by Alstom, the giant French engineering company.
And they will be doing so with French government blessing. France’s State Secretary of Economy, Finance, Industry and Foreign Trade, Pierre Lellouche was in Estonia to oversee the signing by state energy company Eesti Energia and Alstom of the contract to build the oil shale plants. Total contract size for Alstom (which the French state held a major share in until 2006, before selling it to another government favourite, Bouyges): €950 million.
Lellouche said the contract would help guarantee Estonia’s energy security. At least he didn’t have the brass neck of Estonian Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications Juhan Parts, who said “the new energy units will give us [a] cleaner environment and greener future for our children”. Eh?
Fortunately the Commission has stepped in and will investigate the state aid, but on the technical basis that it might create market distortions, rather than the common-sense basis that such aid for polluting industries is stupid and counterproductive. Let’s hope the Commission does forbid the aid.
This article was amended April 7 to take account of a reader’s comment (definition of oil shale).
The unfolding situation in Japan and the European Union decision to stress test nuclear power plants brought to mind another pressing issue: nuclear bombs, and especially what happens when they are lost or damaged. A very interesting US Department of Defense document on this subject is available on t’internet describing ‘accidents involving US nuclear weapons, 1950-1980′.
These include an incident over the Mediterranean Sea in 1956 when an aircraft carrying two nuclear capsules disappeared and was never heard of or seen again; and another incident in 1956 at an unnamed “overseas base” (possibly RAF Lakenheath in the UK) when an aircraft slid off a runway and hit “a storage igloo containing several nuclear weapons”. Then, in 1965, an aircraft loaded with a nuclear weapon fell off an aircraft carrier into the Pacific, sinking unrecoverably into the depths. In 1966, over Spain, a B-52 carring four nuclear weapons was in collision with another plane, resulting in contaminated soil and vegetation, but apparently nothing more serious.
This one, meanwhile, could almost be slapstick comedy if it wasn’t so serious: in 1980 at an air force base in Arkansas, a “repairman dropped a heavy wrench socket, which rolled off a work platform and fell toward the bottom of the silo. The socket bounced and struck the missile, causing a leak from a pressurised fuel tank. The missile complex and surrounding area were evacuated…”. Fuel vapour subsequently exploded but thankfully the nuclear warhead didn’t go off.
The document also describes an incident in northern Greenland in 1968, when a B-52 with four nuclear weapons crashed and burned up. All the nuclear weapons were destroyed in the fire, says the report.
Or maybe not. A BBC investigation in 2008 established that only three of the bombs were accounted for. The fourth is presumably up there in the ice somewhere.
It is also likely that the US 1950-1980 list seriously underplays the number of incidents. It lists 32 accidents, but other reports refer to more, such as this one, which says the US Navy reported 233 “nuclear weapon incidents” between 1965 and 1983.
This provokes a couple of considerations. First, if this is a partial picture of US incidents, it doesn’t even bear thinking about how many times in the Soviet Union nuclear bombs were accidently dropped off ships, lost in the ice, or had wrenches dropped on them. Second, though the US military is hardly forthcoming, European countries are generally less likely to declassify information on nuclear accidents. In the UK for example, a serious accident at a US airbase in 1958 was believed to involve nuclear weapons, but the government always denied this, though of course it could just be that there was no nuclear accident…
So while the European Commission is thinking about stress testing nuclear plants, perhaps it could also put an appeal out to EU governments to disclose the extent of their nuclear arsenals, and to declassify information relating to nuclear weapon accidents and incidents. Of course it won’t happen because anything military is generally beyond the EU’s reach, but it would be nice to know the truth about how contaminated with radiation Europe already is.
PS: interesting Cablegate cable (from 2008) on nuclear power and Japan: http://cablesearch.org/cable/view.php?id=08TOKYO2993
Blink and you’ll have missed it because it has attracted little media coverage, but 2010 was the warmest year on record. According to the World Meteorological Organisation, the global average temperature in 2010 was 0.53 degrees Celsius above the 1961-1990 average, while the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has it at 0.62 degrees Celsius above the twentieth century average, making 2010 equal with 2005 as the warmest year on record.
Now just a note for those who will point out that for much of the northern hemisphere December 2010 was extremely cold and snowy: when talking of “global warming” and “climate change”, please remember the clue is in the names. Global warming means the global temperature, on average, is going up. It does not mean that there is uniform warming in all places simultaneously. Climate change means, surprisingly, that the climate is changing. This change can be experienced in many ways: warmer weather in some places, cooler weather in others, more rain and storms and extreme events (as seen in Australia and Russia in 2010). The NOAA also has 2010 as the wettest year on record, in terms of global average precipitation, by the way.
Given the continued global warming trend, it seems surprising that the top EU politicians hardly mention it any more. In particular, the EU2020 strategy seems to be becoming an excuse to put off action on climate change until later. Real action on “low-carbon growth” is now seen as something for 2030 or 2050, rather than now. In recent speeches, Jose Manuel Barroso has barely mentioned climate change. In the EU economic growth priorities for 2011, the notion of sustainable growth does not even feature. In his speech to the first 2011 session of the European Parliament, Barroso briefly welcomed the relative progress in international negotiations on climate change at Cancun (venue for the 16th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, at the end of last year), but then promptly put it in the same bracket as EU agreement on the Eurovignette truck road charging system. Climate change is becoming, it seems, a second division policy area.
And environment commissioner Janez Potocnik is not helping, deciding in the last couple of days to put off until 2013 a review of air pollution legislation that should have happened in 2004. Part of this review would be to set 2020 targets for reductions of some pollutants. Potocnik doesn’t want to put his head above the parapet, it would seem.
But, as climate action commissioner Connie Hedegaard said in a recent debate organised by the Lisbon Council, “we’re in for some very expensive solutions if we just continue business as usual”. She wants the EU to increase its 2020 emissions reduction target from 20 percent to 30 percent compared to 1990 levels, but this idea has been on the table for a year without any real development in the discussion. Hedegaard will push it ahead of the next UN climate summit, in Durban, South Africa, at the end of this year. Its acceptance, or not, will be a major test of the EU’s resolve to try and do something about climate change.
It seems like a marriage made in heaven: Russia and FIFA for the World Cup 2018. The “mafia state”, as described in the Wikileaks dispatches, and the Swiss-registered, er, non-profit association that had revenues of $1.06 billion and a “surplus” of $196 million last year.
One can speculate that FIFA’s choice of Russia for 2018 was influenced by the lesser likelihood of scrutiny of FIFA’s operations there. In South Africa in 2010, FIFA required a waiver of taxes and changes to the law, creating new crimes to protect its commercial interests. Had an EU location been chosen for 2018, great media pressure would surely have built up over issues such as these. Russia, followed by Qatar in 2022, would seem to be ideal choices for avoidance of the spotlight.
Belgium and Holland put in a joint bid for 2018, but it is hardly surprising that they failed to secure it after Belgian politician Bert Anciaux kicked up a fuss earlier this year about the concessions demanded by FIFA. Anciaux published a series of guarantees that FIFA wanted from the Dutch. These included (and I quote):
“FIFA and/or FIFA Subsidiaries… will be fully exempt from any Taxes in the Netherlands… The full Tax exemption is not limited to the events and is not limited time-wise… The exemption stated in this section shall encompass all revenues, profits, income, expenses, costs, investments and any and all kind of payments, in cash or otherwise” (author’s note: hmmmm, in cash eh?).
“The Government of the Netherlands and all governmental authorities of the local level will procure, at their own costs, the implementation of all necessary safety and security measures required to ensure the safety and security of FIFA / FIFA Subsidiaries and their staff… The Government of the Netherlands will, at its own costs, develop and implement a detailed and comprehensive security concept”.
“Unrestricted import and export of all foreign currencies to and from the Netherlands, as well as the unrestricted exchange and conversion of these currencies into US dollars, Euros or Swiss francs…” (author’s note: isn’t this carte blanche for money laundering?).
“Ambush marketing… that may induce third parties into erroneously believing that those product or services are approved, authorised or endorsed by FIFA… will be prohibited by law.” (note: this is just one of a number of activities related to commercial activity to be “prohibited by law”. These prohibitions “shall be sanctioned by a suitably severe penalty to deter any deliberate breach, subject to a written demand for penalty by FIFA”. Hang on, laws and penalties are determined by Parliaments, no?).
“The Netherlands guarantees to FIFA the availability throughout the Netherlands of a telecommunication infrastructure and all relevant services… [this] shall be given to FIFA at no specific costs and expenses for FIFA.”
There were many more such demands. Some, though not all, were knocked back by the Netherlands. I wonder if the Russians (or the Qataris) reacted in the same way?
Considering the outrageousness of FIFA’s demands, media scrutiny, the economic downturn and pressure on government finances, not to mention EU competition law which is violated by FIFA’s monopoly and commercial practices, it seems unlikely that the EU will ever host a World Cup again. FIFA is a venal organisation and the sooner it is replaced by something else, the better.
An amusing story from the UK Labour party leadership campaign, which is ongoing. The following is an article of mine that was published in British magazine Private Eye:
Although they are an endangered species nowadays, numbering only 13 out of Britain’s 72 elected euro-representatives, UK Labour Party MEPs will play an important role in the Labour leadership election.
Their votes count equally with those of members of the Westminster parliament. Thus it has been that in the last few weeks, four leadership hopefuls – Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and both Milibands – have pitched up in Brussels to state their cases.
But what of the fifth candidate, Diane Abbott? Well, she was invited. But MEPs were somewhat surprised to receive the emailed reply that Diane would be unable to attend a meeting due to being “very busy with the leadership campaign”. Has anyone told her that she ignores Brussels at her peril!
Andrea D’ambra, a campaigner from Italy, is trying to get MEPs with criminal convictions booted out of the European Parliament. He has even set up a Facebook group. He lists three Italians, Vito Bonsignore, Aldo Patriciello and Mario Borghezio as having various convictions for “serious criminal offences relating to corruption charges, discrimination and illegal financial practices.” To this we can add Jean-Marie le Pen (various hate crime convictions), Bruno Gollnisch (Holocaust denial), Nick Griffin (incitement to racial hatred) and Andrew Brons (breach of the peace, OK not exactly crime of the century).
How many MEPs with criminal convictions are there? Which country has the most? We should be told! Give me names (current MEPs only; Ashley Mote and Tom Wise are history).
Journalists love the Bilderberg group because it has an air of secrecy and conspiracy. In fact, rather than anything very substantial, it seems to be largely a vanity project – people who think themselves very important gathering in an air of secrecy and conspiracy. Last week in the Commission’s press room there were questions about the possible attendance of José Manuel Barroso.
Barroso was not there at the June 3-6 meeting in Sitges, Spain. Three of his colleagues were however: Joaquín Almunia, Karel de Gucht and Neelie Kroes. At least that is what the Bilderberg website says – the group is getting a little less secretive it seems.
For all the secrecy and conspiracy (and public expense of getting the Spanish police out to guard the venue, though apparently Bilderberg refunds any such costs incurred), judging from the list of participants, Bilderberg seems to be a gathering of rather second division VIPs. Almunia, de Gucht and Kroes got to rub shoulders with a number of company CEOs, some journalists, and luminaries such as premier of British Columbia Gordon Campbell, president of Austria Heinz Fischer and Greek finance minister George Papaconstantinou. Er, isn’t rubbing shoulders with these people what the Commissioners do every day anyway? Admittedly there were more important attendees, such as Bill Gates and famous war criminal (according to Christopher Hitchens) Henry Kissenger. Spanish PM Zapatero was there as well.
And of course Bilderberg is chaired by former EU Commissioner and the man who allegedly secretly runs Belgium, Etienne Davignon.
Bilderberg justifies its secrecy by stating that participants all attend in a personal capacity and it is therefore not a public event. So no doubt the Commissioners that attended all did so on unpaid days off, and travelled and accommodated themselves for the event at their own expense.
Look closely enough at yesterday’s European Commission communication on ‘moving beyond a 20 percent greenhouse gas reduction’ and you will spot a scandal. It’s on page 3 and it reads like this: ‘With many allowances unused during the crisis, companies will be able to carry over some 5-8% of their allowances from the 2008-2012 period into the third phase of the ETS.’
What this means is that during the 2008-2012 period of the EU emissions trading system, companies were given more carbon allowances — pollution permits — than they needed. Partly this is a consequence of unforeseen events. Because of the deep recession, big steel firms and the like drastically cut their production between 2008 and 2009, emitting much less CO2 than expected, and so ending up with piles of unused emission allowances.
But partly, the allowance surpluses are down to bad planning, lobbying and the rewarding by governments of their favourite industries (ie those that threatened to relocate elsewhere if they did not get bumper carbon allowance handouts).
Because of the way the ETS was set up, the surpluses are held primarily by heavy industry, rather than by power plants. Here are a few examples. In Belgium, in 2008, ArcelorMittal received for its various plants 11,183,005 allowances. But it only used up 7,109,899 of them — a surplus of more than 4 million.
Another metal-basher, Corus, received in 2008 across various plants 11,414,550 allowances, but only used 6,953,746 of them. Massive German ironworks Hüttenwerke Krupp Mannesmann, meanwhile, got 8.6 million allowances but only used half of them.
These massive surpluses were: 1). given to these companies for free, and 2). can be carried over to the next phase of the ETS (2013-2020) and sold then. By my admittedly back-of-the-envelope calculations, the 5-8% cited in the Commission’s paper means between 520 million and 833 million surplus allowances EU-wide.
Here is the absolutely scandalous part: the companies holding these allowances can sell them for at least an estimated €16 each in the next phase. That means the most polluting companies in Europe are lining up to receive a windfall that could be as much as €13.3 billion from the ill-conceived emissions trading system.
And who precisely will deliver this windfall to billionaires like Lakshmi Mittal? Well, while EU governments were dishing out massive surpluses to their favourite manufacturers, they gave far smaller allocations to power plants. This was because power plants can’t flounce off to another country if they don’t get what they want. So the massive Drax power plant in northern England, for example, was given in 2008 9.5 million allowances, but had emissions equivalent to 22.3 million — a shortfall of 12.8 million.
But another reason power plants were given insufficient allowances was that they do not suffer any real negative effect from it — they simply pass on the cost to their customers in the form of higher electricity bills. So the ill-conceived ETS has resulted in households across Europe funnelling money into the pockets of some of the continent’s most polluting companies, who have no incentive to do anything in return, but just wait for the free money to roll in.
Increasing the EU’s 2020 emissions reduction target from 20 to 30 percent compared to 1990 levels would force a quicker burn through of the surplus but will not reduce the windfall. In fact, it might increase it, because the carbon price would likely rise. However, the Commission should scrap the rule that allows the 2008-2012 surplus to be carried forward to the next ETS phase. Of course in the face of the lobbying power of the steel industry and others, this is hardly likely to happen.
…by Connie Hedegaard. Her pronouncements in the European Parliament this afternoon (9 March) mark an abrupt change of direction for European Union climate policy on a number of points.
First, she wants to reverse the EU position on the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol. Before December’s disastrous Copenhagen climate conference, the Commission was saying that Kyoto should be scrapped and replaced by a new treaty. This played up to what the US wanted but was a total obstruction when it came to dealing with developing countries. Now, Hedegaard says the US should come up with an acceptable alternative if it refuses to countenance Kyoto. This is a big change.
Second, she has put deeper emission cuts by the EU back on the agenda, saying the Commission will prepare an analysis of the options for going from a 20 percent to a 30 percent reduction (by 2020 relative to 1990), in time for the June European Council. It’s worth pointing out here that Commission president José Manuel Barroso came close to dropping completely even the suggestion of the 30 percent target from his recent EU2020 plan, so Hedegaard’s revival of it marks a notable victory.
Third, she is talking about starting to make emission reduction plans beyond 2020, with the Commission to produce by the end of the year a paper on “scenarios” until 2030. This is interesting because it forces the powers-that-be to start thinking in serious terms about how very deep emission cuts might be achieved. In principle, if the EU is to keep to its plan of keeping global warming to less than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, radical action post-2020 will be needed.
Will Hedegaard get her way, or will it all be too much to swallow for Italy, Poland and the other reactionaries? We will see. But in the meantime, another Commission announcement today suggests Hedegaard might have a lot to do if she is to change entrenched EU thinking.
The Commission today (9 March) green-lighted a German subsidy of €30 million to ArcelorMittal so it could install a system at one of its steel plants that will reduce carbon emissions by 16 percent (presumably reduce them in relative, rather than absolute terms, which is fine but of course may make no difference to overall emissions). In the long-run ArcelorMittal will benefit because it will cut its energy costs by installing the technology.
Why should ArcelorMittal get this subsidy? The EU is supposed to have a polluter pays principle, and ArcelorMittal made profits of $1.1 billion in the last quarter of 2009 alone. Why therefore should they be subsidised by the taxpayer? It is worth noting that ArcelorMittal reduced its costs in 2009 by $2.7 billion (see this report), ie. by closing plants and shedding jobs. Why is the steel giant given a big bung in return?
It is also worth noting that ArcelorMittal is sitting on a huge reserve of carbon allowances given to it as part of the EU’s emissions trading system (ETS). In fact, it has vastly more allowances than it needs, due to over-allocation and due to the recession, which led it to cut production, thus cutting its greenhouse gas emissions. These allowances are transferable to the next phase of the ETS, and can be sold after 2012, which means ArcelorMittal is already sitting on a windfall. The extra allowances freed up by the new technology paid for by the subsidy will boost the windfall even more.
I’m not impressed by that.
The European Commission has given its backing to a ban in international trade in the severely endangered bluefin tuna. Sort of. In fact, the Commission has said there should be a provisional listing of the bluefin in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, meaning international trade in it would in principle be banned, but the ban should be deferred for one year, giving industry a last chance to put its house in order.
This semi-solution is no great surprise. The Japanese are prepared to pay huge sums for bluefin. There is big money at stake for the industrial fishing concerns and their lobbyists.
In any case, the Commission has been shovelling subsidies in the direction of the bluefin fishing fleets, as I wrote in December in the British magazine Private Eye.
Here is my Private Eye article:
Every Brussels policy edict comes with green edging nowadays. So, when in September Monaco suggested that the best way to conserve the highly endangered and emblematic Atlantic bluefin tuna was to ban international trade in it, the European Commission was quick to lend its support – only to huff and puff when Spain and other Mediterranean countries declined to back it up.
But behind all the talk of sustainability, EU money has been bankrolling the bluefin-decimating fleets. Spanish green MEP Raül Romeva has discovered that the Commission has paid €33.4 million since 2000 to vessels licensed for the bluefin fishery. These boats, many owned by industrial fishing conglomerates, are rather less concerned with conservation than they are with selling at premium prices to the Japanese as much of the giant tuna as possible.
And although the Commission has repeatedly talked about the need to reduce Europe’s fishing-fleet capacity, most of the subsidy has been spent on new vessels that will terrorise any remaining bluefin for years to come. EU money has helped pay for no fewer than 121 boats that participated in the bluefin fishery in 2009, including 15 purse seiners, hated by environmentalists because they indiscriminately scoop up sealife in giant drawstring bags. Meanwhile, scappage payments have been made for just nine vessels. Pass the salt and vinegar!