Friday 9 December 2022

The Tory Dependence on Fossil Fuels

Implausibly, coal not dole could be the Tory slogan for their campaign in Cumbria at the next election. Michael Gove's approval of the first deep pit mine in 30 years. Ever the self-identified pragmatist, Gove has defended his decision because of the jobs it would create and establishing a reliable supply of coking coal for the steel industry means we don't have to buy from Vladimir Putin any more. The Conservative Friends of Primary Industry, who'd have thought it? Not the best look when the Tories boast about how much a world leader in net zero their government is, but there's another set of optics they are more bothered about.

Disinterring King Coal from his crypt is one moment of a pattern of behaviour. We had Rishi Sunak refusing to attend COP27, until it became politic for him to do so. The Tories as a whole (but not the Prime Minister himself) are very keen on fracking, and smart under the ban Boris Johnson introduced and public opinion has since enforced. And then we have the energy price guarantee. Earlier in the year while Sunak was chancellor he set up a supposed levy on the fossil fuel giants to freeze bills. By the time of her brief period in the Downing Street spotlight, energy was costing so much that Liz Truss was forced to act. Her scheme was to borrow on the never never and pay these funds over to the suppliers to fix the unit price. She then stupidly sunk her premiership and underlined the doom upon the Tories. When Sunak was coronated he continued with the U-turn on tax cuts for the rich brought in by Jeremy Hunt, but crucially kept the public subsidy for energy, categorically ruling out making the likes of BP and Royal Dutch Shell pay out their surplus profits. Likewise, his tax break for oil exploration stayed in place. What have these companies got on the Tories?

The party is well funded by oil and gas companies. Reporting prior to the 2019 election, The Graun found fossil fuel firms had spent over £5m lobbying MPs. The recipients of this aid were mostly Conservative members. Nadhim Zahawi, for instance, was on a £20k monthly salary as Chief Strategy Officer for Gulf Keystone Petroleum from October 2015 to August 2017, when it increased to £30k. He received a £116k golden goodbye when he became a minister in 2018. An egregious example when other loyalties could be bought for much less, such as the £10k Gove got in 2010, and the relative pittances enjoyed by Tory climate change denialists who concidentally are in receipt of similar monies. Tories enjoy incentives to stay sweet on fossil fuels, especially now many of them will look for new careers before long.

Much has also been made of Truss's oil links. But she last worked for Shell 22 years ago, a decade before she entered the Commons. Her leadership campaign was part funded by fracking interests and they were duly rewarded, but her enthusiasm for launching a new wave of drilling in the North Sea requires a bit more explanation. As does Sunak, whose spent his career as a City slicker but has bent over backwards to help the industry while in office - his system of tax reliefs being one example. His family have an indirect commercial interest in Shell and other Indian-based fossil fuel firms. Is it as easy and as crude as joining the dots?

It might seem that way, but it comes back to the particular constellation of class forces the Tories articulate and cohere. Principally, the City. In the first place, tax receipts from the North Sea bankrolled Thatcher's closure of nationalised industries and her subsequent attacks on the labour movement in the 1980s. And while there is still money to be made - some 3.2bn barrels remain unexploited under the sea bed - Tory attitudes, conscious and instinctual, are more driven by what's good for the City. Keeping it at the top of the global casino has, historically, meant the state is very hands off when it comes to the capital flows that sluice on through. Britain's companies and property markets are fair game, and offer convenient holding pens outside of the jurisdictions from whence the capital came. Oil and fossil fuels are and will remain strategically vital for the rest of the century, notwithstanding advances in batteries, fusion, and renewables. Keeping the regulatory environment light touch if not positively welcoming for carbon polluting industries tells them London is always open for their business, even if they're not interested in direct investments in exploiting Britain's substantial coal, gas, and oil reserves. And it has proven very successful so far, with energy oligarchs from Russia and the Gulf's absolutist tyrannies coming to town and finding the doors held open to the country's elite. For the Tories, petrochemicals are more than just about money, it's absolutely central to the City's soft power and therefore the global significance of the UK's capitalist class. Whose standing isn't harmed by having two of the world's largest oil concerns domiciled here either.

This helps explain the Tory politics of fossil fuels. It goes way beyond the role they play in the country's energy mix and the junkets, freebies, and consultancies they dole out to friendly politicians. It's central to the alignment of bourgeois politics and their state. This means environmental concerns about oil drilling, coal mining, fracking, are immediately questions of class that cuts to the quick of their power, and puts the Tory clamour for repressive legislation against Extinction Rebellion/Just Stop Oil in an entirely different light.

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Phil said...

NB: I should also have added that significant sums flow into fossil fuel exploration, whether the companies are based in the UK or not, via the City of London. Not politically inconsequential!

Old Trot said...

Dearie me, Phil. So the Tories are in hock to the big petrochemical and coal interests, Yep, quite true - but is that the full picture, for socialists ? Unfortunately our post feudal, then agriculture-based , now industrial global society, under whatever form of ownership , depends centrally on massive steel production, and the huge use of oil and gas. Even those supposedly low carbon wind turbines cannot be built without steel and plastics. Better we produce steel for our continued industrial society using our local high quality coal (and the local jobs created ) than import usually far inferior coal from other countries, with usually massively inferior health and safety regs. There is no way to produce steel without coal. Forget all the nonsense about purely using electricity to do so, Pure fantasy.

This 'no to oil', 'no to coal' mantra spouted incessantly by the middle class Left liberals of the Guardianista class , whilst their privileged lifestyles are utterly totally dependent on steel and plastics, is yet another demonstration of the utter disconnect of what passes for today's Western 'Left' and the working class. I remember sitting in disbelief in my local Labour Party branch at the end of the Corbyn era whilst the entirely middle class local branch exponents of the then Labour's vacuous 'Green New Deal' nonsense maundered on endlessly about what was never more than a set of unthought out slogans. When asked about the meaninglessness of a financialised , deindustrialised, UK somehow achieving the fantasy of 'carbon neutrality' - whilst we actually continued to consume ever more of those goods requiring steel and plastics, whilst conveniently 'offshoring ' the real UK total carbon output to poorer countries, and making unemployed the still large numbers of workers employed in steel and plastics/ petrochemical production, there was always an embarrassed lack of any real analysis or response. How unsporting I was to ask awkward questions of Labour's lovely 'Green New Deal' big idea ! It was as if the middle classes of the 'Left' just want the smug slogans , but have no idea how to relate to the real world , or the priorities of the poorer, ever more financially crushed, working class, at all. As with so much of the current obsessions and policy priorities of our Left Liberal 'Left' .

There is of course a huge amount that can be done to reduce the scale of unnecessary waste production and CO2 production and other pollution, globally and locally, and new technologies that are and will continue to massively reduce the CO2 impact of an absolutely essential continuing high technological society on our planet. But pretending that a world which needs to support adequately a population of many billions can do without steel, plastics, oil, gas, is nonsense. The more efficient, much less destructive, running of a technological society of course requires global, planning-based, socialism. That is our planet's only hope.

The fantasy of a liveable future without steel, coal, gas, petrochemical usage on a huge scale is simply to fall back on Malthusian pessimism, and the underlying belief always there amongst the always middle and upper class Green politics enthusiasts that the globe needs a huge population decline and rationing for the poorest - whilst the smug middle and upper classes somehow sail on unscathed.

Jenny said...

It’s a bit like when gw bush was POTUS. People thought he was being bribed or lobbied by the oilCos, but it’s simpler than that. He was an ex oilman from texas, so ofc naturally sympathetic. Isee the Economist is suggesting DC pension schemes could invest in dodgy startups already,

SimonB said...

Old Trot is incorrect. Coke from coal is used as a reducing agent in steel production but there are other options. Hydrogen could be used, for example. If made by electrolysis of water by sustainable electricity it would be more expensive but less harmful. It’s a future technology we should be developing.