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Proletarian issue 8 (October 2005)
Cheap and dirty: pet
Capitalism shows itself yet again to be the enemy of the environment
Despite local opposition, the Environment Agency (EA) has given permission for petroleum coke (petcoke) to be burnt at Drax power station near Selby. The justification given for this decision was that the EA wants to look at the effects of burning petcoke in combination with coal.

This is the second time the EA has granted permission to burn this un-environmental substance. The first trial was back in 1997 (around the time North Selby mine was earmarked for closure) and looked at the environmental impact, in particular the impact on plants, wildlife, health, pollution and corrosion.

Petcoke is a by-product of oil refineries. It is of concern because it contains much higher levels of sulphur, nickel and vanadium than coal. For example, sulphur dioxide causes acid rain and exacerbates chest problems, as does vanadium. Nickel is both a high-risk allergen and a carcinogen.

Petcoke is already used in power plants in some European counties, as well as in British cement kilns. However, no health and environmental impact assessment has yet been carried out. The local protest group at Selby (Drax) are putting pressure on the EA to require such an assessment to be carried out at Drax.

One health issue is very clear to the residents around Drax – the dust blown from the petcoke during transport, handling and storage. Factual evidence has shown petcoke to cause respiratory problems to an extent that in the United States it is now required to be covered at all times.

Management at Drax have confirmed to the protest group that a similar requirement has now been implemented for the petcoke used there. The effectiveness of this obviously depends upon proper implementation - something the public do not have much reason to be confident about.

The whole issue of petcoke is controversial. One Selby councillor (Labour) has admitted: “Around here the public do not trust the EA.” (What about the Labour councillors and MP who allowed the closures of the town’s biggest employer – six collieries that once made up the record-breaking Selby coalfield?)

Of course, the EA is yet another limb of the imperialist state and we all know the lies and false promises the present imperialist government has told - as the parents, families, sons and daughters who have lost loved ones fighting an unjust war in Iraq will confirm.

It is thought that the decision at Drax may have been taken to fit in with those being taken at other power stations wishing to burn petcoke. The substance is being hailed as the answer to the problem that the cleaner stations, ie, those fitted with flue scrubbers, face of being unable to compete in the electricity market with "dirty" stations because it costs more to generate electricity when using these scrubbers.

So what price do we put on the EA decision to allow the burning of petcoke at Drax? Massive job losses, pollution, health problems, acid rain … and what for? So the companies that own plants like Drax can maintain profit margins.

The government’s energy policy is meaningless; it expects to be a net importer of energy by the year 2020. If vision had been applied instead of naked pursuit of immediate profit then Flue Gas Desulphurisation units would have been fitted to coal-powered stations so coal could be burnt in a way that would minimise adverse environmental effects, at the same time providing Britain with its own secure source of energy.

As it happens, UK Coal has scandalously reneged on a contract to supply coal to Drax power station, a breach that will cost Drax £10m this year and £5m next year as the power station has to buy more petcoke in order to guarantee fuel supplies.

The shortfall in supplies for Drax can be attributed directly to the unnecessary closure of the Selby coalfield, as ‘our’ industries switched to cheap oil, gas and coal from abroad.

It is clear that in the rabid pursuit of profit, which is the only rationale the capitalist system understands, not only are family jewels (such as our national coal fields) cast aside with careless abandon, but the health of millions of people can be put quite unnecessarily at risk.

If we had had a socialist revolution in Britain and our economy over the last 50 years, say, had been run on socialist lines, then instead of deriving our energy from looting the oil of the Middle East and elsewhere, we would have been relying on our own coal supplies – having taken measures to prevent the emission of greenhouse gases as soon as the environmental threat of burning fossil fuels was perceived. Since securing people's present and future wellbeing would have been the motivator of our decisions about what is to be produced and how we produce it (rather than how can we make the biggest profit), we would today not only be using fossil fuel more cleanly but we would almost certainly have been decades more advanced in the research for clean long-term alternatives to fossil fuel.

Anybody who gives these matters serious thought cannot but conclude that overthrowing capitalism is today a matter of the very survival of our planet!


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