Why do we let protesters dictate energy policy?

Cuadrilla withdraws from oil expansion in West Sussex.

The activists have won. For now. UK based energy firm Cuadrilla announced last night it is to withdraw from its oil exploration in the village of Balcome in West Sussex.

The firm said that the move is based on police advice due to fears that the protesters would soon embark on a campaign of mass civil disobedience at the heavily fortified site.

Cuadrilla has been drilling for oil in the village but has yet to use the controversial fracking technique the No Dash for Gas group are fighting against.

The move to pull out of the site follows a piece by David Cameron in the Telegraph this week urging the country to get behind fracking operations in the UK not just in the desolate north as Tory peer Lord Howell claimed last month.

In the piece, Cameron talks of the cost of bills, the creation of jobs, the money the work will bring to the local neighbourhoods and finally the minimum damage to our countryside, not once mentioning the larger effects the work will have on the environment, outside that which directly affects the human population and over what timescale.

Though the firm has decided to suspend operations for the time being it will has said it will begin drilling for oil as soon as it is safe to do so, betting that protesters will quickly loose interest while there is no work going on.

But while the protesters have managed to get operations suspended for now, is the way they’ve gone about it helping their cause?

When a firm cites reasons of safety for the temporary end to operations in an industry which, more often than not, works in conditions far less safe than the English countryside you do have to wonder whether the campaigner’s means are justifying the end.

It is headline grabbing, sure, and it is entirely possible that people (especially the papers) would not have the same reaction to the issue without the civil disobedience that so often comes with a large scale protest. But on issues which are far less than black and white, such as that of renewable energy and climate change, should we allow protesters to intimidate and restrict legal operations when the far less harmful and threatening channels of protest remain open to them?

A protest sign in West Sussex. Photograph: Getty Images

Billy Bambrough writes for Retail Banker International at VRL financial news.

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A third runway at Heathrow will disproportionately benefit the super rich

The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000.

The story goes that expanding Heathrow is a clear-cut policy decision, essential for international trade, jobs and growth. The disruption for those that live around the airport can be mitigated, but ultimately must be suffered for the greater good.

But almost every part of this story is misleading or false. Far from guaranteeing post-Brexit prosperity, a new runway will primarily benefit wealthy frequent flyers taking multiple holidays every year, with local residents and taxpayers picking up the tab.

Expanding Heathrow is not about boosting international trade. The UK is only marginally reliant on air freight to trade with the rest of the world. Total air freight traffic in the UK is actually lower now than it was in 1995, and most UK trade is with Europe, of which only 0.1 per cent goes by air. Internationally, as much as 90 per cent of trade in goods goes by ship because transporting by plane is far too expensive. And in any case our most successful exports are in services, which don’t require transportation. So the idea that UK plc simply cannot trade without an expansion at Heathrow is a gross exaggeration.

Any talk of wider economic benefits is also highly dubious. The Department for Transport’s forecasts show that the great majority of growth in flights will come from leisure passengers. Our tourism deficit is already gaping, with more money pouring out of the country from holidaymakers than comes in from foreign tourists. What’s worse is that this deficit worsens regional disparities since money gets sucked out of all parts of the country but foreign tourists mostly pour money back into London. As for jobs, government estimates suggest that investing in rail would create more employment.

As for the public purse, the aviation sector is undeniably bad for our Treasury. Flights are currently exempt from VAT and fuel duty – a tax subsidy worth as much as £10bn. If these exemptions were removed each return flight would be about £100 more expensive. This is a wasteful and regressive situation that not only forfeits badly needed public funds but also stimulates the demand for flights even further. Heathrow expansion itself will directly lead to significant new public sector costs, including the cost of upgrading Heathrow’s connecting infrastructure, increased pressure on the NHS from pollution-related disease, and the time and money that will have to be ploughed into a decade of legal battles.

So you have to wonder: where is this greater public good that local residents are asked to make such a sacrifice for?

And we must not forget the other sacrifice we’re making: commitment to our fair share of global climate change mitigation. Building more runways creates more flights, just as building more roads has been found to increase traffic. With no clean alternatives to flying, the only way to meet our climate targets is to do less of it.

The real reason for expanding Heathrow is to cater for the huge expected increase in leisure flying, which will come from a small and relatively rich part of the population. At present it’s estimated that 70 per cent of flights are taken by 15 per cent of the population; and 57 per cent of us took no flights abroad at all in 2013. The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000, which is nearly three times the UK median income.

This is in stark contrast to the communities that live directly around airports that are constantly subjected to dirty air and noise pollution. In the case of London City Airport, Newham – already one of London’s most deprived boroughs – suffers air and noise pollution in return for few local jobs, while its benefits are felt almost entirely by wealthy business travellers.

Something needs to change. At the New Economics Foundation we’re arguing for a frequent flyer levy that would give each person one tax-free return flight every year. After that it would introduce a charge that gets bigger with each extra flight, cracking down on those that use their wealth to abuse the system by taking many flights every year. This is based on a simple principle: those who fly more should pay more.

A frequent flyer levy would open up the benefits of air travel, reducing costs for those struggling to afford one family holiday a year, while allowing us to meet our climate targets and eliminate the need for any new runways. It would also generate millions for the public purse in an efficient and progressive way.

We have to take back control over an airports system that is riding roughshod over communities and our environment, with little perceivable benefit except for a small group of frequent flyers.

Stephen Devlin is a senior economist at the New Economics Foundation.