Oil and the United Kingdom: towards extinction … or hope

August 23, 2021

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TERRY BROTHERSTONE reviews Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation, by James Marriott and Terry Macalister (London, Pluto Press, 2021)

Even Alok Sharma – Boris Johnson loyalist, former Tory cabinet minister, now president of the COP 26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in November – says he recognises it: the planet is in the last-chance saloon. Indeed, the scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warn, the clock – to borrow George Orwell’s opening to 1984 – has already struck thirteen. “Human activity,” reported The Guardian,“is changing the Earth’s climate in ways unprecedented in … hundreds of thousands of years”: some potentially disastrous consequences are “inevitable and ‘irreversible’”.

Only the worst effects can now be alleviated, and that only by decisive action drastically to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Without a serious move to end reliance on fossil fuels, human society as we know it faces extinction. And, argues this book, Britain is a nation the modern existence of which has been shaped by oil. What hope is there for the future?

The publication of Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation is timely indeed. That James Marriott and Terry Macalister had fun researching it resonates in their writing, but it must have been hard work too. It took them about three years longer than planned, when the instability that afflicted Britain in the years following the 2007-09 financial crash prompted their project. The effects of austerity; the near-miss 2014 Scottish independence referendum that raised the now immanent possibility that the 314-year-old union with England could end, and with it the fragile constitutional underpinnings of the United Kingdom; “Brexit”; growing fears of climate catastrophe … it all made the nation look unprecedentedly insecure.

A protest against new oil field development in Scotland. Photo by Craig Maclean

Experts in their different ways in the central socio-economic role of oil in the modern world, Marriott and Macalister decided to investigate the part it had played in holding the Britain of recent decades together – and is now playing in tearing it apart. They would travel the country, researching its post-World-War-II relationship with the industry. Then, as they were reaching their journey’s end, the Covid-19 pandemic dealt the final blow to what to them – children, as they introduce themselves, of the years in which oil replaced coal in the engine-room of British prosperity and sustained the underlying certainties of the country’s political economy and social life – had seemed an “era of optimism”. They “had spent [their] lives writing on the oil and gas industry and its impacts around the world”, and now wanted to understand “what was its role … in Britain’s turbulence?”

Marriott and Macalister make an ideal pair to ask the question, and they have devised an entertaining, instructive and original way of starting serious debate about answering it. The delay in their publication plans, moreover, means that their book has arrived at an opportune moment. The protest movement is gathering momentum, notably in London against the Science Museum’s acceptance of Shell’s “greenwashing” sponsorship for its “Future of the Planet” exhibition and, in Scotland, against further North Sea oil exploitation, in the first place of the Cambo field, west of Shetland. And planning is well underway for major demonstrations at the COP 26 summit that the smooth and well-travelled (although never-quarantined) Sharma is scheduled to chair in Glasgow in November – described by Kevin McKenna in The Herald (Glasgow) recently as an exercise in entrusting “our climate recovery … to the sector chiefly responsible for creating it … the planet’s chief pollutant: global capitalism.”

Macalister, now Senior Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge and a freelance journalist, was for some years Energy Editor at The Guardian – a position in which he clearly formed working relationships with key figures in the oil industry, access to whom adds important insights to Crude Britannia. Interviewees include senior politicians such as Michael Heseltine and “Green Deal” Corbynite, Rebecca Long-Bailey; and chief executives such as Royal Dutch Shell’s Bernardus (or “Ben”) van Beurden, and John, Baron Browne of Madingley. Browne was British Petroleum’s chief executive from 1995 until 2007, and his shape-shiftingly image-conscious, but never less than ruthless, career punctuates the story at key moments. His 41 years with BP ended following the revelation that he had lied about his personal life in a sworn court deposition. Now a cross-bench peer, he emerges as one of the key business figures in the “new Labour” years. His ultimately unsuccessful attempts to rebrand BP as “Beyond Petroleum” with a sun-god logo, dovetailed well with premier Tony Blair’s short-lived “third way”, capitalism-with-a-human-face ideology.

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Iran oil workers’ strike: a spectre haunting neoliberalism

July 16, 2021

More than 60,000 Iranian oil workers have joined a strike for better pay and contracts – the biggest such action since the general strike of 1978-79 that helped toppled the Shah’s regime.

The stoppage is supported by teachers, pensioners, and families seeking justice for their relatives killed during the big wave of protests in November 2019.

The protest began on 19 June, the day after the elections won by the conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who takes over as president next month.

The Iranian oil industry is dominated by the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company. But in recent years it has employed a host of contractors – many owned and controlled by state officials and their relatives – who have slashed pay levels and undermined working conditions.

Striking workers at a refinery, late June

The Strike Organisation Council for Oil Contract Workers, that has been set up during the action, is reported to have said that the workers’ main demand is higher wages, and added:

We will no longer tolerate poverty, insecurity, discrimination, inequality and deprivation of our basic human rights. Given the skyrocketing cost of expenses, the [monthly] wages of workers should not be less than 12 million tomans ($491).

The strikers are demanding the elimination of temporary contracts, an end to the use of contract companies and the recognition of the right to form independent unions, according to other reports.

The strike is supported both by contract employees and by skilled workers in less precarious jobs, according to interviews published by the Kayhan Life media outlet.

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How the UK Climate Change Committee steals from the carbon budget

July 8, 2021

With the COP 26 international climate talks coming up in Glasgow in November, the UK government’s greenwash machine is going into overdrive.

The prime minister has set the tone with a “ten point plan” on climate – denounced as empty rhetoric by researchers (e.g. here and here) – which in turn is linked to the government’s new target, to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 78% of 1990 levels by 2035.

That target is linked to the sixth carbon budget for 2033-37, proposed by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) that advises the government.

The CCC has warned that the government is on track to miss the targets for fourth budget (2023-27) and the fifth budget (2028-32), and often made valid proposals for decarbonisation measures. For this it has been praised by Labour politicians, some environmentalist organisations and some climate scientists. 

But looking coherent, compared to the government, is a very low bar to jump over. The CCC’s carbon budgets are not a realistic guide to the UK playing its part in tackling climate change – and are used by government ministers and other politicians to obstruct and delay effective action.

The way the CCC budgets are calculated would allow the UK economy to emit at least twice as much greenhouse gas as any amount that could possibly be described as its fair share.

In the article below, and a linked article on how a UK carbon budget could be set, Peter Somerville explains why.

To preface Peter’s arguments, here are a few words about what carbon budgets are, and why they matter.

The global carbon budget from 1800 onwards (with a view to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees) as a bucket, which is nearly full. A graphic by the Global Carbon Project

Global carbon budgets are measurements of the amount of carbon dioxide that scientists estimate can be put into the atmosphere, before global warming breaks certain barriers. The budgets are often stated in gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions (GtCO2). The barriers are usually stated as global average temperatures, measured in degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels.

Global carbon budgets are the products of scientific research. There are some good visualisations on the Global Carbon Project web site (go here and scroll down to “The carbon budget for 1.5°” and “Remaining carbon budget to 1.5° and 2°”).

■ In reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the budgets are set out in tables that provide scientists’ best estimates of the remaining carbon budget available, to keep global temperatures to certain levels. The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees, published in 2018, said that, to limit warming since 1850-1900 to 1.5°, the remaining global carbon budget is 840 GtCO2, for a 33% chance of hitting the target; 580 GtCO2 for a 50% chance; and 420 GtCO2 for a 67% chance. The scientists also provided estimates for a range of other temperatures and likelihoods. You can see the key table (Table 2.2 in chapter 2) here.  

There are uncertainties in climate science. These figures shift, as research teams refine their estimates. In the IPCC sixth assessment report, due out next year, the budgets are likely to be smaller than in previous reports.

Carbon budgets deal with CO2 emissions, that account for about three-quarters of the global warming effect. Scientists have developed budgets for other greenhouse gases, that collectively account for the other one quarter. Methane and nitrous oxide are the most important ones.

Global carbon budgets are worked out by science, but national carbon budgets are set by politics. They reflect what countries’ politicians decide is (i) a reasonable global budget to aim at, and (ii) their country’s fair share of that budget.

The CCC takes as a starting-point scientists’ global budgets that give humanity a 50% chance of hitting the 1.5 degree target (see the Sixth Carbon Budget report, pages 367-371) – which is itself a political decision. But it is not easy to see how it does the sums.

Researchers who have done their own sums say that the CCC is allowing the UK a share of the global budget that is disproportionate, and unfair to nations of the global south – in other words, stealing from the global budget.

A key research paper by scientists at the Tyndall Centre argued last year that the UK’s carbon budget for the rest of this century should be no more than half the figure the CCC is working with – that is, carbon emissions cuts have to be twice as stringent.

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Let Africa’s queer voices speak in the movement for climate justice

July 6, 2021

As the climate crisis intensifies in Africa, LGBTQIA+ people will struggle the most, ORTHALIA KUNENE, a South African writer and grass roots activist, writes in this guest post

Climate change affects every one of us on the planet but the burden of its consequences are vastly unequal.

While climate impacts are devastating for everyone, inequalities such as those between the rich and poor, and between different genders and sexualities, widen in times of crisis. The impacts are experienced in varying depths and extremes within – and between – communities.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), people who are already the most vulnerable and marginalised will experience the greatest impacts of the climate crisis. The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and ally (LGBTQIA+) community is one such group, which, because of its social vulnerability, is a hidden victim of climate changes.

In Africa, LGBTQIA+ people are already more likely to live in poverty, have less access to basic human rights – such as the ability to move freely – and to face systematic violence, that escalates during periods of instability. There are more and more instances of violence and state repression, and as climate change intensifies, LGBTQIA+ people on the continent will struggle the most.

The Pride festival in Soweto, South Africa, in 2014. Photo by Siyachamer Ntuli

In the past two years, climate disasters have rampaged through the African continent, washing away homes, bridges, schools, and entire neighbourhoods. In Mozambique, since Cyclone Idai in 2019, there have been three more cyclones.

When Cyclone Idai hit landfall in Beira, Mozambique, it killed more than 1000 people across Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, and left 2.6 million people in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Catastrophic damage, caused by strong winds and extensive flooding, wiped away harvests and destroyed seed stocks. Millions lost their homes and livelihoods. Two years on, more than 8.7 million people do not have enough food or water, and over 100,000 people in Mozambique are still living in temporary shelters.

While devastating for all the communities impacted, those affected who are LGBTIQIA+ are even more vulnerable – because of pre-existing challenges based on the continuous fight for equal rights and freedom from discrimination and violence. There was a reminder of these challenges earlier this year in Cameroon, where more than two dozen people were arrested between February and April on charges of homosexuality, according to Human Rights Watch, and several of those arrested were subjected to beatings and other forms of abuse.

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1921-2021. The Kronshtadt revolt and the workers’ movement

February 26, 2021

One hundred years ago, on 1 March 1921, sailors at the Kronshtadt naval base took up arms against the Russian Soviet government. In 1917, those sailors were on the front lines of Russia’s two revolutions, which overthrew tsarist autocracy and the capitalist government that succeeded it. Those struggles brought to power the Soviet government, the first in the world claiming to rule on behalf of working people. (The soviets were workers’ councils.) After defeating the counter-revolutionary “Whites” in the civil war of 1919-20, that government’s Bolshevik leaders faced an explosion of protest by the very workers they claimed to speak for, that culminated in the Kronshtadt revolt. The movement demanded not only action against economic inequality, but also the restoration of the soviet democracy and free speech won in 1917. Today People & Nature publishes an article by Simon Pirani, describing the 1921 workers’ movement, its political aspirations, and how the Bolsheviks, by suppressing it, took a decisive step towards authoritarianism. The article builds on research for Pirani’s book, The Russian Revolution in Retreat: Soviet workers and the new communist elite (2008). CONTINUE HERE

Rebel sailors on the battleship Petropavlovsk, at Kronshtadt, during the March 1921 uprising. Photo: Granger Historical Picture Archive


South Africa: communities remember anti-mining activist Mama Ntshangase, and organise

January 26, 2021

In South Africa, the state remains willing to sacrifice rural communities for its coal-fired development agenda, one that persists despite visible social and environmental devastation  and the growing threat of climate disaster. HALI HEALY writes in this guest post about the communities’ response

Vigils were held across South Africa last month for murdered anti-coal activist Mama Fikile Ntshangase, who was brutally gunned down in front of her teenage grandson on 22 October

The vigil outside the Minerals Council building in Johannesburg

2020. She had dared to oppose plans by coal mining company Petmin to expand operations in the Somkhele region of KwaZulu-Natal province.

Vigils serve multiple important social functions. Usually held at night, they are occasions for mourning that allow the bereaved to remember the significance of their loss. Vigils also can serve as protests, drawing public attention to travesties of justice. Or they can be understood as a collective response to tragedy, one that hopefully eases the visceral pain of grief, replacing it with a sense of peace, and in the process, offering some sort of societal lesson.

Despite being held in broad daylight, the vigil for Ntshangase in Johannesburg was all of these things.

Gathered under the searing mid-day sun, a small group of some 15-20 activists, most of them women, convened in front of the offices of the Minerals Council, a powerful industry association, in central Johannesburg.

Coordinated with the assistance of the Extinction Rebellion network, they came from Read the rest of this entry »


“Now and then the flame dies down, but solidarity is a stream of sparks”

January 18, 2021

ILYA SHAKURSKY, an antifascist political prisoner in Russia, appeals to you in this interview to write to him, and to others imprisoned in the infamous “Network” case. Please see a note at the end about where to send messages.

Tomorrow, Tuesday 19 January, is the anniversary of the assassination of antifascists Anastasia Baburova and Stanislav Markelov, who were shot dead in broad daylight in central Moscow in 2009. People will gather – in Moscow, to lay flowers at the place where they were killed, elsewhere on line – and we publish this article on several web sites simultaneously, to express solidarity.

The “Network” case began in Penza and St Petersburg in October 2017, when the Federal Security Service (FSB) started detaining young anarchists and antifascists, who

Ilya Shakursky

had supposedly participated in a terrorist group. The security services claimed that the young detainees were preparing terrorist acts, aimed at the presidential elections and the football World Cup in 2018 [which was staged in Russia].

It soon became clear that this “Network” organisation had been dreamed up by the FSB, and the confessions extracted from the alleged participants with the use of the most barbaric tortures. Details of the methods used, including electric shock batons, were published widely before the defendants were tried.

Nevertheless, the defendants were found guilty and sentenced – in January 2019 in St Petersburg, Igor Shishkin to three-and-a-half years’ detention; in February 2020, seven defendants in Penza, including Ilya Shakursky, to between six and 18 years; and in June 2020 in St Petersburg, Viktor Filinkov to seven years and Yulii Boyarshinov to five-and-a-half years.

In October 2020 an appeal by the Penza defendants was heard and rejected. An appeal by Viktor Filinkov is in progress.

All ten defendants are included in a list of 61 political prisoners compiled by Memorial, Russia’s largest human rights defence group.  

This interview with Ilya Shakursky, who is serving a 16 year sentence, is by Dmitry Semenov. It was published by Free Russia House, an “alternative embassy for Russian civil society” based in Kyiv, Ukraine, and by the Rupression collective that supports the “Network” case prisoners. (The questions were sent via Yelena Shakurskaya, Ilya’s mother, and answers received, via Yelena, in written form.)

 

Question: Do you feel the support from outside the prison system, and how important is it? Could you say something briefly to our readers and to people who support you?

Ilya Shakursky: It feels good to realise, every morning when they call out my surname and hand over letters I have received, that people remember me and continue to support me. At those moments, the grey monotony of imprisonment is broken up by different colours. It doesn’t matter whether the letter is a couple of lines or goes on like a whole essay. Just getting some news gives me strength and happiness. When I Read the rest of this entry »


A statement by the Rupression collective

January 18, 2021

Statement by the Rupression collective about ceasing financial support for two of the “network” case prisoners, 1 November 2020 [Original here.]

Dear readers of Rupression, and all those, who support political prisoners and express solidarity with the defendants in the “Network” case,

We have been compelled to take very difficult and complex decisions, and to formulate our position on supporting the defendants [in the case], due to their conduct with respect to the criminal case or separately from it.

First of all, the Rupression group is not a fund or an organisation, but a collective that came together spontaneously. People join, and leave, get burned out and then find new strength, and, sometimes, operate at the limits of what they are capable of. This Read the rest of this entry »


To remember is to fight!

January 18, 2021

Antifascists in Moscow will tomorrow (19 January) lay flowers at the place where on that day in 2009 the antifascists Anastasia Baburova and Stanislav Markelov were assassinated. A facebook post by the organisers said:

19 January 2021 is a day of memory and of struggle. On that day at 7.0pm we will lay flowers at the place where Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova died.

The Moscow mayor refuses to permit the traditional rally on the anniversary of Stas and Nastya’s death, due to coronavirus restrictions. A gathering to remember the

"Stop political murders. To remember is to fight!"

“Stop political murders. To remember is to fight!”

journalist [Baburova] and lawyer [Markelov] who died at the Nazis’ hands has been held every year for 12 years and has brought together people of many different views. The 19 January Committee declares:

Political repression and murder not only continue in our country but have gone into overdrive. Today their source, more and more often, is not the Nazis but the state.

Repression is unleashed on organisations who defend citizens’ rights from police terror and domestic violence, environmental groups and those opposed to property Read the rest of this entry »


Just transition on the North Sea: let’s talk about public ownership

December 15, 2020

The UK paid Royal Dutch Shell $116 million of tax rebates in 2019, while the company reported $92.1 billion revenues in the UK for the year.

Internationally, Shell made pre-tax profits of $25.5 billion in 2019, and paid $7.8 billion income tax and $5.9 billion royalties, in dozens of countries. But the UK, France, South Africa and Indonesia handed money back to Shell.

The figures were published last month by Shell. The UK tax rebate to Shell also shows up in the UK Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) report, published last week, along with a smaller £14.7 million tax rebate to BP.

At least the UK’s upstream oil industry as a whole paid some tax in 2019 (£1.43 billion) – unlike 2015 and 2016, when the Treasury paid out more in rebates than it collected in tax (as shown in this earlier EITI report).

Shell and BP’s rebates are part of the hugely generous system of tax breaks for North Sea producers, linked to the decommissioning of declining oil fields (and analysed last year in the Sea Change report by Platform, Oil Change International and Friends of the Earth).

These are subsidies to fossil fuel production, running into billions of pounds, devised by a Tory government that claims to be taking action on climate change.

And the problem runs deeper. North Sea oil production has since the 1980s been taxed with profit-based, rather than resource-based, methods, which gave the international companies access to the resources in the ground on unprecedentedly favourable terms.

The central role of these tax arrangements in the neoliberal “process of redefinition of the economic frontiers of the state” was analysed in this article by Juan Carlos Boué, Read the rest of this entry »


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