Blair goes from “greenwash” to landing green job

Former PM lands green energy advisory role.

The decision by the Silicon Valley-based Khosla Venture to hire Tony Blair as strategy adviser on green energy will surprise some environmental campaigners. You need only go as far back as 2003 to find the former prime minster being slammed from all sides for attempting to "greenwash" the then government's environmental record, publishing a white paper on energy provision that many felt was full of hollow promises and light on hard targets.

Published on what the government at the time called "Green Monday", the white paper on energy provision was met with derision from environmentalists, including the Green Party. The Greens' principal speaker, Margaret Wright, described Blair's white paper and the environment secretary Margaret Beckett's annual report on sustainable development as "green spin and greenwash".

Wright pointed out back then that the £350m set aside for renewable energies in the energy white paper was just over half the taxpayer bailout of the privatised nuclear power industry that had recently been announced.

Even the prime minister's environmental adviser, Sir Jonathon Porritt, warned that the UK would fall "well short" of its goal of cutting carbon-dioxide emissions by 20 per cent by 2010 unless major policy changes were made, particularly on reducing car use.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) -- which was considered Blairite at the time -- warned that the energy white paper could put investment in renewable energy projects at risk, saying that by failing to commit to firm targets for renewable energy, the government had jeopardised new investment.

The IPPR research fellow Alex Evans said: "The white paper is chronically short on detail. It is frustrating that the government doesn't have the nerve to commit to formal 2020 targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency."

Back then, the government said it did support renewable energy, and that the white paper set out how it would spend £30m more per year in the sector.

But the Liberal Democrats' environment spokesman, Norman Baker, said: "Tony Blair's speech is just more warm words about greenhouse gases. Every few years the prime minister feels the need to give a speech on the environment which is followed by inaction."

Yet Khosla Ventures, launched in 2004 by Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of the former technology giant Sun Microsystems, has chosen Tony Blair Associates as its part-time adviser on green energy. Khosla Ventures is an investment group that says it specialises in environment-friendly technologies, including solar, wind and -- ahem -- nuclear energy start-ups.

Khosla insisted that Blair will be of enormous value to his venture capital firm. "Understanding local and global politics is now important for us, techie nerds," he said. "This is where our relationship with Tony Blair can really help us. Tony understands far better than I ever will the political and geopolitical forces, as well as organisational behaviour and social behaviour and change."

The company said in a statement that Blair has led on climate change: "He was the first major head of government to bring climate change to the top of the international political agenda at the 2005 Gleneagles G8 summit. He is a proponent of pursuing practical solutions to tackle climate change through technology and energy efficiency.

"Tony Blair now leads the Breaking the Climate Deadlock initiative, a strategic partnership with the Climate Group, working with world leaders to build consensus on a new, comprehensive international climate policy framework."

As for Khosla, although he is heavily into investing in renewable energy, he is clearly not wholeheartedly against nuclear power. He once said:

I suspect environmentalists, through their opposition [to] nuclear power, have caused more coal plants to be built than anybody. And those coal plants have emitted more radioactive material from the coal than any nuclear accident would have.

Jason Stamper is NS technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review.

 

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.