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A year of resistance against coal extraction: support the Ffos-y-fran 5!

By Mitch - Reclaim the Power, September 22, 2017

Reclaim the Power’s 2016 camp focussed on the issue of coal with a mass trespass against Ffos-y-frân coal mine closing it for the day. But that was far from the end of the story…

Ffos-y-frân is the UK’s largest opencast coal mine, it is very close to Merthyr Tydfil and is operated by Miller Argent. The main consumer of the coal for most of its existence has been Aberthaw power station near Barry in South Wales.

In December 2016 Reclaim the Power, Coal Action Network, Bristol Rising Tide and United Valley’s Action Group began a series of actions to close Aberthaw power station.

The first action against Aberthaw was a short and creative blockade of the only access road. Check it out in this short film which shows what happened and explains why we are targeting Aberthaw.

Aberthaw power station was the dirtiest power station in terms of nitrogen oxides in the UK, with the UK government allowing it to breach European Union air quality standards. The levels of toxins were more than double those from other power stations because Aberthaw burnt Welsh coal which is less flammable but supported Welsh mining jobs. In 2016 environmental lawyers, Client Earth, brought a case to the European Court of Justice which ruled against the UK government for allowing Aberthaw to kill 400 people a year through poisonous emissions.

Within two weeks of the opening action activists were back at Aberthaw, this time with a more serious blockade of the power station’s only access road. This time for four hours, entirely blocking the road with two tripods, causing a large tail back of lorries, before campaigners left with no arrests. It was unclear whether the power station was actually asking the police to remove the blockade as its workers and bosses were absent.

Aberthaw is run by the utility company RWE nPower whose head offices in Swindon were visited within a month of the previous action. There was a visual presence at the enormous offices which resulted in a security shut down (although one person still managed to get inside). The protest raised awareness of the opposition to the power station amongst employees and in thelocal media.

The next action in part organised by Reclaim the Power involved many more people; 150 made it to a stony south Wales beach in January to show their opposition to the power station. Marianne Owens from the PCS union said, “It’s working class people who suffer from this dirty energy,” as she addressed the crowd from the sea wall. At the demonstration demands were made for a Just Transition for coal workers to sustainable jobs.

Greed Has Poisoned Their Souls

By Demand Climate Justice - The World at 1°C, September 9, 2017

Unless you are an environmental geographer or a regular reader of The World at 1°C, chances are you apply the term “natural disaster” to events such as Hurricane Harvey, the landslides in Sierra Leone which claimed 1000 lives, or any of the other countless climatic shocks felt over the last month.

The fact is that nothing could be more unnatural:

In every phase and aspect of a disaster […] the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.”

This is true enough of events which occur irrespective of human activity, such as volcanic eruptions, but when it comes to the droughts, storms, floods, and famines (and, actually, even some earthquakes) caused by climate change or extractive industries, the term natural disaster hides not only a truth about differentiated impacts — it also masks a truth about where responsibility lies.

ExxonMobil, for example, has known that its continued existence causes climate change for decades. And ExxonMobil lied about having this knowledge with such abandon that now even their ex-employees are suing them (in addition to Californian communities affected by climate change). A journal article published this month was the first to analyse all of Exxon’s communications about climate change. It concluded that the corporation knew the facts thanks to its own scientists, yet continued to peddle doubt and foster confusion (including through paid editorials in liberal papers like the New York Times).

The very same ExxonMobil, which now has a major ‘in’ at the White House via Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has been repeatedly let off the hook by authorities. One emblematic story recently published in The Intercept explains how the company has been poisoning a black community in Beaumont, Texas, for decades, by pumping millions of tonnes of toxic chemicals into the air while refining “sour crude.” The community, where people suffer from high rates of hair loss, birth defects, asthma, and cancer, tried to get the EPA to do something (the Exxon refinery regularly broke the law), but were ignored for 17 years. Those who could afford to moved away. Those who could not still live in the shadow of Exxon’s stacks, which stand as monuments to greed and indifference to human suffering.

The market-based “logic” of greenwashed capitalism is that if corporations must pay for doing things like ruining people’s lives or even ruining the planet, then they won’t do it, or at least not as much. But that is demonstrably untrue. Last year, Exxon’s Beaumont refinery illegally released 2,125 pounds of carbon monoxide, sulfur oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide. They were fined $7001. Even when companies are fined much more — as Exxon was when one of its decrepit pipelines burst in 2013, flooding an Arkansas community with 200,000 gallons of Tar Sands oil — they are often able to appeal, as Exxon did.

If a conviction somehow sticks, corporations are sometimes able to ignore the ruling altogether, as these 3 companies appear to be doing in Indonesia. Following successful convictions with penalties in billions of dollars, the Indonesian government has been unable to collect. While the corporations make billions exploiting Indonesia’s vast mineral reserves and precious forests, the communities in the way are left destitute and savaged by both corporate mercenaries and state military forces.

Cognizant of (negative) publicity, corporations are careful to cover themselves with the fig leaf of “corporate social responsibility” and other such meaningless phrases which sound good but don’t mean much in practice. In a case that has echoes of ExxonMobil’s climate change cover-up, Monsanto was recently exposed in The Poison Papers as having made and sold a toxic industrial chemical known as PCB almost a decade after being told by their scientists that:

The evidence proving the persistence of these compounds and their universal presence in the environment is beyond questioning.”

In addition to covering up the horrendous health impacts of its PCB products, newly revealed documents show that Monsanto also conspired with a consultancy firm to “ghost write” a supposedly independent review of the health impacts of its flagship herbicide Roundup. Monsanto has since attempted to force the documents offline, out of sight.

What these examples make clear is that the ways in which people are made to suffer under the dominant social, political, and economic systems are not natural or innate. People suffer by design. And the designers have names like Exxon and Monsanto.

Against Our Own Best Interest: Why Working People Shouldn’t Elect Businessmen Into Office

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, June 28, 2017

In my experiences, I’ve run across many people who believe business executives are a good choice to be our lawmakers. Many of these same people also complain about the poor treatment of employees and off-shoring of manufacturing jobs, decisions that are often made by business executives.  So why exactly do people elect them into public office?

After getting into a variety of debates, I’ve found many people’s logic can be summed up in this statement, “Business leaders are smart people and hard workers who know how to make the right decisions to build companies from the ground up. They are good employers and will use their expertise to fix our government and provide more and better jobs.” If these were the businessmen and women that actually made it into office, I might consider the notion, but this is rarely the case.

Rural conservatives have a strange admiration for business executives as being job creators. Yet, these are the same people who make the big company decisions like downsizing, placing freezes on pay increases, reducing healthcare benefits while increasing employee insurance premium contributions, requring mandatory overtime, all while giving the green light for human resources to treat everyone like a literal resource—or as a threat if they have been harassed or injured in the workplace. Business executives loyalty is always to the stockholders and other investors. They are legally bound to make a profit. If this means eliminating labor overhead, they do.

Our national business culture breeds a superiority complex among corporate executives, making it difficult for them to be kind to their laborers. The free market mandates competition, which good or bad, results in a survival of the fittest mentality that ends up in a quest for the cheapest sources of both labor and materials (like coal). This is the mentality that drives people beyond having a conscious when it comes to the average laborer. For some well-to-do business leaders, it translates into the divine right to take a massive dump on anyone beneath them because, after all, “It’s just business.”

People also seem to forget the golden rule of business that allowed many of our now elected officials to make their fortunes—”It takes money to make money.” The majority of the super wealthy who own the majority of businesses, did not come by their fortunes through a rags to riches story. It came from prior wealth inherited from their predecessors.  They have never had to work hard just to survive and provide for their families. They have no understanding of the people who work for them, and therefore, no reason to care about them.

Searching for Justice in Appalachia: Part II

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, June 21, 2017

In my original post, I skirted along the edges of some personal beliefs that I often spare my readership, beliefs that I must admit, cause me to doubt myself and this work. As I mentioned in my first post, one of the downsides to being a justice advocate is realizing just how bleak the situation can be. I get up every morning, wondering if we can ever truly achieve justice.

Just to recap, coal companies have billions in assets, lawyers on retainer, political campaign contributions, and they own the majority of our resources in Appalachia. Coal companies use the money they make from our resources to hire marketing firms, pay for advertising time on TV networks, and print thousands upon thousands of Friends of Coal stickers to convince us they are benefiting our communities. For many of us, it’s a struggle just to pay our bills and buy food, let alone stand up against it.

And then there’s something I don’t often admit. There are times I question whether we have anything left to fight for. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been surface mined. Millions of acres have been underground mined leaving voids that will eventually cause subsidence, sinking more wells in the decades to come, and creating more acidic mine drainage laden with heavy metals and whatever waste we left in there. Then there’s the billions of gallons of coal sludge dammed up in hollows all across Appalachia, and tens of thousands of natural gas wells belching out “residual waste” water.

The picture becomes even darker when I realize that the issues we have in Appalachia apply on a global scale. Everywhere there are natural resources to be had, companies have undertaken similar initiatives, and it’s all driven by the insatiable desire of millions and millions of people competing for social status and seeking all things comfortable and convenient. Add in all the social, racial, and environmental injustices that go along with it, and how the mainstream discredits justice seekers as eccentric or extremist and well… there just doesn’t seem to be any hope left out there in the world. I constantly go in and out of states of depression and the idea of throwing my hands in the air to run screaming into the woods where I would live out the remainder of my life as a hermit becomes more and more appealing.

But I never will. I can’t give up.

People on both sides of these debates are so often on the same page but don’t realize it, and therein lies some hope. Most folks working in extractive industries are conservationists, and that’s not a far cry from environmentalists. True, they’d rather be beaten about the head and shoulders with a roof jack than to be considered a “treehugger,” but many would stand up to preserve their hunting grounds or local lake. The problem always seems to be a break down in communications between environmentalists and the working class, and the industry always knows exactly where to place the dynamite on the bridges that are built between them. It’s always in the industry’s interests to keep people at odds—it’s been that way since the union days.

I’m going to keep trying to build those bridges. Some environmentalists consider me arrogant and self-serving when I criticize their methods, and some miners like to call me a “disgruntled employee” or a “treehugger,” but I’m none of it. What I am is crazy. Crazy enough to believe that if we can just clear away the bull****, we might have a chance at gaining our freedom, our land, and our children’s future back. This is where the rubber meets the road for me, this is where the past 20 years of my adult life comes to a head; getting up every morning, putting everything I have out there, taking the licks I get for opening my mouth, trying to scrape by on what little money comes our way, and forging ahead.

Using Miners for Political Gain is Nothing New, Still Repulsive

By Rob Byers - CounterPunch, June 9, 2017

Earlier this spring, I was asked a question about my late father, who had been a coal miner in the 1970s and ’80s. It had to do with a familiar romantic storyline:

Did he feel at home underground? Was it a calling that tugged at him during the layoffs, a longing to get back to the job he loved?

Short answer: No. Long answer: Hell, no.

Best I could tell as a kid, he hated it. It was back-breaking, dangerous, cold, dusty, dirty. He did it for the same reason miners do it today – because it was the best-paying job around for a man with a high-school education.

As a coal miner’s son, you might think I would be proud of all the attention miners are getting nowadays from President Trump and the media. You’d be wrong, though. Actually, I find the whole thing pretty demeaning, as the coal miner is used as a political pawn and an excuse to trash the planet.

Then again, maybe I should be used to it by now. The miner-as-economic-victim thing has been hanging around for quite a while.

After the first Obama election in November 2008, Republican lawmakers, industry groups and political strategists needed a human face for their cause, which was eliminating environmental regulations and ignoring climate change. The noble miner, toiling away underground to power America, was perfect.

Never mind that the cause was much more about making money for political donors and industry partners than it was about any miner’s paycheck.

Now, how about a nice, sound-bite slogan? One that mining families and local politicos could easily spout. Enter the “war on coal” — a purely fictitious battle, of course, but nobody ever said politics was about honesty. And talk about effective marketing. So catchy.

The villain? Well, that was really too easy. Everybody was blaming Obama for everything anyway. Plus, it was a two-for-one deal: They could bash the union at the same time after the UMWA backed Obama in 2008.

Fast forward to 2016 and an out-of-context Hillary Clinton quote later (“we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”) and it was time to trot out the “war on coal” political machine once more.

Trump plays dress-up in a hard hat at a rally at the Charleston Civic Center, feigns what he thinks it must be like to hold a shovel and fakes his way to the White House.

And so, at long last, the Republicans – and many West Virginia Democrats — are getting what they want as Trump rolls back Obama environmental laws and ignores climate change.

By backing out of the Paris climate agreement, Trump gets to act like he’s helping out his base in West Virginia, while really doing nothing – except, of course, forfeiting America’s well-earned perch as the world’s problem solver. And all the while, our congressional delegation dutifully stands back and applauds.

True help for unemployed miners and other West Virginians would mean tackling climate change head-on, embracing renewable energy and re-training people to work in the emerging industries.

But Trump is a champion only for himself … and his golf courses and hotels.

After all, we’ve watched him propose gutting the Appalachian Regional Commission, Legal Aid, low-income heating aid, college tuition assistance and other programs that benefit West Virginians.

I find no value in the argument that West Virginians, miners and other working-class communities across the nation are getting what they deserve. It’s precisely that kind of divisiveness that landed us in this mess.

It’s not foolish for someone to vote for a candidate who promises to represent their specific interests. It’s not surprising for someone to pine for an earlier time, a time they perceive to have been better. That’s been going on since the first time anyone referred to the “good ol’ days.”

In a place where drug abuse and unemployment are rampant, it can be easy to look back instead of ahead. It’s simpler to think back fondly to the busy, bustling mines — and conveniently forget about the slag heaps and polluted streams. The men, women and children buried alive by coal waste at Buffalo Creek. The dust that turns lungs black and slowly chokes lives away.

It’s even simpler when the powerful spend lavishly to make damn sure it happens.

Coal mining can be a dirty business. But so is toying with West Virginia’s hope.

Fight Back for Energy Independence Over Corporate Profits

By Lois Marie Gibbs - Common Dreams, May 27, 2017

‘Homeland Security – No more wars over oil!’ That’s what families in communities across Pennsylvania were promised a decade ago.

‘We’ll extract natural gas from the ground, using an unconventional process called hydrofracturing, to acquire enough natural gas that the U.S. will no longer be dependent on foreign oil!’

At least that’s what we were told. No longer would we need to send our young men and women overseas to fight oil wars.

Today America is there, with over 100 years of natural gas reserves. Moreover, if our country was to also invest in energy conservation and renewables, our nation could have 200 years of reserves today.

So what happened to that promise of ‘Homeland Security’ and ‘Energy Independence’? And why aren’t we celebrating?

The Case for Phasing out Alberta’s Tar Sands

By Gordon Laxer - Resillience, May 23, 2017

Proponents call them oil sands while opponents call them tar sands. Whatever they’re called, Alberta’s bitumen reserves are so massive, James Hansen warns that it could be game over for the world’s climate if all are extracted and burned.[i] We can’t do that and possibly keep the world below the Paris target of a two degrees Celsius rise above pre-industrial levels.

What to do about Alberta Sands oil is an issue for Americans as well as Canadians. The US imports over 3 million barrels of oil a day from Canada, accounting for 38% of US oil imports, outpacing the combined imports from the four next largest sources – Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Mexico and Columbia. Sands oil comprise the majority of US oil imports from Canada.

The future of Sands oil imports became an American issue after more than 1,200 people were arrested in 2011 in front of the White House protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Shortly after, President Obama blocked and then banned the XL line to take mainly Sands oil to the Gulf coast. President Trump overturned that decision in March, allowing the Keystone XL line to be built, a move applauded by Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.

Big Oil faces huge obstacles getting Sands oil to major markets. In the context of today’s low international oil price, the Sands are among the costliest to produce on the planet. They emit massive amounts of extra greenhouse gases because they are heated by huge amounts of natural gas to separate oil from sand. To get from remote, landlocked northern Alberta to tidewater, Sands oil must cross political barriers – through one or more Canadian provinces or cross the border to the US. That means they need a social license – public and government support – to get to market. The future viability of the Sands then greatly depends on politics.

Oil industry power is slithering away

By Paul Brown - Climate News Network, May 13, 2017

Big oil is getting smaller. Many of the oil services companies that are employed when new fields are being developed have been laying off workers, and oil companies have been writing down their assets.

The problem is the persistent low price of oil. Despite the best efforts of OPEC − the organisation representing the developing world’s oil producing countries − to limit production and put a squeeze on supplies, oil prices have risen only slightly.

This has put many potential fields in the category of being too expensive to exploit − particularly in the case of the tar sands of Canada, and in the Arctic and difficult-to-reach offshore locations.

One of the areas where small fluctuations in the price of oil make a big difference is in the expansion of the fracking industry in North America, which led to the glut of oil on the world market.

Ecologist Special Report: Divesting from investment in fossil fuels gains momentum in the UK

By Remo Bebié, Finance Dialogue - Ecologist, May 15, 2017

Bill McKibben, Author and co-founder of 350.org is categoric that one of the key ways to tackle climate change is through financial channels: "There is no question we are currently in a state of emergency on climate change. Day in day out people are dying from the effects of climate change. There are many ways to confront this emergency and divestment allows us to get in the way of the money financing the fossil fuel projects behind this crisis.

"The fact that the fossil fuel divestment movement has grown exponentially in the last few years is the best news ever. From the Pacific Islands to South Africa, from the United States to Germany, people are standing up and challenging the power of the fossil fuel industry."

And in the UK too, the divestment movement is now gathering momentum.

Only last week, 50 MPs announced their backing of a campaign calling on parliament's £612m pension fund to divest from fossil fuels.

Faith groups too are also increasingly moving out of fossil fuel investments. Earlier this month, more than a quarter of Britain's Quaker meetings pledged to divest and the Catholic Church is also taking stand ("the Catholic fossil fuel divestment movement has gained further momentum as nine more institutions pull out of fossil fuels, citing a "political impasse" around US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement." )

In late January, the Irish Parliament voted in favour of a law requiring the country's £6.8 billion Ireland Strategic Investment Fund to divest from all fossil fuels over the next five years. The story went viral on social media.

Three weeks ago, Norway's largest private pension fund, Storebrand, launched two new fossil free funds, bringing their fossil free fund portfolio to $1.2 billion. Storebrand also warned that the Norwegian government is overly exposed to fossil fuels through its $900 billion sovereign wealth fund, even though it has already taken significant steps to reduce exposure in the past.

Momentum is gathering at such a speed in the UK it appears to be approaching a tipping point: Waltham Forest and Southwark, two local government pension schemes for boroughs in London, have pledged to fully divest from fossil fuels within the last year, while Hackney's pension fund committed to cut its exposure by 50 percent, as the FT reported recently. Among the UK's Local Government Pension Schemes, these three are on the smaller range, each managing assets between £0.74 and £1.26 billion.  

But examples also include the £2.73 billion Environment Agency's Pension Fund, which is currently ranked second in the Asset Owner Disclosure Project's 2017 ranking (first in 2016) among the world's 500 largest asset owners. The fund is widely considered a global leader in terms of aligning investment strategies with the goals called for in the Paris agreement and reducing financial risks associated with the energy transition.

UK workplace pension scheme NEST, already progressive in terms of integration of Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) issues, has recently added a specific climate tilted fund to it's portfolio. NEST cited "addressing risks and capturing opportunities associated with the move to fight climate change" as reasons for launching the fund. 

Private institutions are taking note too: Last fall, HSBC Bank UK Pension Scheme chose a new climate tilted fund as the equity default option for its £2.6 billion defined contribution (DC) scheme. The scheme's CIO, Mark Thompson, expects the move to deliver "better risk-adjusted return, protection against climate change risks, and a more powerful ESG engagement policy within a passive mandate".

Furthermore, by April 2018, most UK local government schemes are due to be integrated into eight pools, each managing between £12 and £36 billion of pooled assets (see here for a good pooling overview by IPE). Implementation of divestment pledges for individual schemes will depend on the pool structure. The schemes of the London boroughs are already being pooled through London CIV, which recently wrote that it is "focusing on investment strategies the pension fund authorities have shown most demand for, namely: global equity income; sustainable equities; emerging markets and value strategies." 

Many other pools are now in the process of hiring executives: Brunel, the pool which contains the Environment Agency's Pension Fund, and LGPS Central have named new chairs within the last month. The London Pension Fund Authority (LPFA) is currently "seeking to recruit additional Board Members with knowledge and experience of either: 1) Environmental Social and Corporate Governance issues in a pension fund, with a strong commitment to delivering divestment from fossil fuels; or 2) strategic and sustainable infrastructure investment by pension funds, with a breadth of experience across all forms of infrastructure investment." 

All this indicates that more activity may be expected from the UK's public and private institutional investors. And public pressure is rising as well as various UK local government pension schemes are engaged by campaigners as part of the Global Divestment Mobilisation (GDM) with calls for fossil fuel divestment (see here for complete list of LGPS engagements within the Mobilisation).

Getting Out of Our Coal Hole

By Oscar Reyes - CounterPunch, May 11, 2017

When you’re in a hole, it’s usually best to stop digging. But when President Trump told supporters at his 100th day rally in Pennsylvania that “we are putting our coal miners back to work,” he just burrowed deeper into the bed of administration lies on energy.

The truth of the matter is that climate regulations aren’t a “war on coal,” and no amount of presidential photo-ops will bring mining jobs back. A recent report from the Center for Global Energy clearly shows why.

The demand for U.S. coal has collapsed in the past six years, it explains, following big improvements in energy efficiency (like better lighting and appliances), cheaper gas and renewables, and a decline in coal exports as other countries look to cleaner sources of energy.

Three of the four largest coal mining companies have filed for bankruptcy, while Bob Murray — CEO of the largest remaining one — recently warned Trump that coal jobs are unlikely to return. The CEO should know, as Murray Energy’s formula for avoiding bankruptcy has largely involved slashing jobs, compromising safety, and worsening labor conditions.

America’s main competitors get the point and have already planned to phase out coal. On April 21, the United Kingdom met its energy needs without burning any coal at all — for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. And the country’s last coal-burning power station will close within the next decade.

Meanwhile, a majority of energy companies in the European Union have promised to stop investing in new coal plants by 2020.

China is also fast reducing its reliance on coal. It recently canceled over 100 planned new coal-fired power plants, as well as slashing production at state-controlled coal mines. China has pledged to reduce coal production by 800 million tons per year by 2020, more than the entire annual output of all U.S. mines combined.

Instead of trying to revive the mining sector, in short, we should be planning for its replacement.

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