North Sea oil spill - a lesson for us all
by Andy Atkins
Accidents will continue to happen unless society weans itself off fossil-fuel for good and switches to developing cleaner and safer forms of energy
More than 200 tonnes of oil have now leaked from the Gannet Alpha platform off the Aberdeen coastline, the biggest North Sea spill for a decade. A second leak was identified on Tuesday, days after Shell claimed it had the situation under control, and the black stuff continues to flow into the sea.
In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster last year, and just days after the United Nations condemned the company's environmental impact in the Niger Delta, Shell's complacency is startling. The company has been too slow to respond and has failed to be transparent. But the spill itself comes as no great surprise. Oil companies can make all the safety claims they like, but the risks of drilling oil anywhere are inherent. Accidents will continue to happen unless the UK weans itself off fossil-fuel for good and switches to developing cleaner, safer forms of energy. When David Cameron came to power in Britain he promised us the "greenest government ever" - so oil spills in British waters should send warning bells ringing in his ears. The same could be said about the tremors felt in Blackpool earlier this year, caused by shale gas drilling, and the decades of toxic waste the government is committing us to paying for by subsidising nuclear power.
But above all, the UK's miserable performance on renewable energy is our most pressing environmental concern and a massive missed opportunity for our economy. A league table of investment in green energy in G20 countries published by the Pew Foundation earlier this year saw the UK drop from fifth place, in 2009, to a miserable thirteenth in 2010. That year saw ten times as much money per person being spent on renewable energy in Germany than the UK – including government and private expenditure. Some 88 per cent of the country's $41 billion investments in clean energy were in solar technology, almost all of which were "directed to small-scale projects" on rooftops. Meanwhile, China accounted for almost 50 per cent of all manufacturing of solar modules and wind turbines. We are lagging far behind.
The longer the UK delays investment in renewable energy, the longer it remains dependent on imported fossil fuels. Our addiction to costly oil has caused petrol prices to rocket. And our increasing dash for gas is forcing household fuel bills to rise. All the while, public resentment is building against the major energy companies, who are banking major profits and blinding us with complicated tariffs. Friends of the Earth analysis shows that only a switch to clean British power and slashing energy waste will cut fuel bills, tackle climate change and secure our energy supplies long term. It will also create hundreds of thousands of badly-needed jobs in Britain – from wind turbine manufacturing to installers of solar panels and home insulation nationwide.
We do not need to gamble on risky nuclear power, the failed technology of the past. The Green Investment Bank must help the low-carbon industries of the future - and not be forced by the British Treasury to wait for at least five years until it can properly borrow money, like a real bank. Instead of cosying up to the six major energy suppliers, the government should open up the market to new suppliers - enabling communities to produce their own green power such as from the wind and the sun. It works in Germany and if the state provides proper financial support, instead of cutting vital funding. There is no reason why Britain should not follow in its footsteps.
At the same time, a comprehensive national effort is needed to eliminate wasted heat from British homes and lift millions out of fuel poverty. The government's plan - the "Green Deal" - looks like it will fall a long way short. And every single council must play its part in cutting emissions locally. The government's electricity market reform is a real opportunity to change the way we power Britain for the better. If we wean ourselves off oil and harness the UK's huge potential for safe, green energy, we can wave goodbye to oil spills that threaten economic and environmental disaster.
Andy Atkins is executive director at Friends of the Earth
The lesson learned in the Gulf (by those who didn't already know) was that oil is an organic and biodegradable substance, which dissapeared before having any significant impact on wildlife. Contrasting sharply with windmills, which kill tens of thousands of large migrating birds every year by pulmonary barotrauma- having their lungs sucked out by the pressure vacuum.
So why is a handful of oily seagulls an "environmental catastrophe", while this ongiong mass slaughter isn't worth mentioning? Couldn't be the lack of shake-down cash in alternative energy could it?
Threepwood - Michigan