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Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I wish to present a petition that has been signed by residents of Humberstone in Leicester concerning the layout of the junction of Scraptoft lane and Hungarton boulevard, which is dangerous, according to my constituents. As a result of the current layout, a fatal accident recently occurred.
The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to take action to encourage Leicester City Council to create a protected right-hand turn at the junction, reduce the speed of traffic through the junction, and improve the flow of traffic down Hungarton Boulevard.
Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): As the gas price spiralled ever upwards last winter and spring, the disadvantages of our future dependence on that fuel became increasingly obvious. They were clear to the ordinary domestic consumer paying a highly inflated bill, obvious to the point of depression in the Government-supported anti-fuel-poverty sector, and painfully transparent to energy-intensive users, such as the petrochemical businesses in my Redcar constituency. Several of the petrochemical firms, which, together, provide a big slice of the north-east's gross domestic product, had to idle plant and limit output in favour of non-UK locations, and, in one case, temporarily close. The huge hike in those energy costs is likely to have longer-term effects, such as the delay, or even abandonment, of industrial investment in the chemical sector, all of which will be made much worse in the absence of speedy action to guard against a recurrence of the price hike next winter.
The cause of the problem is at least partly the impact of the early liberalisation of the UK energy market ahead of that of the rest of Europe. Additionally, we are moving more quickly than anyone could have predicted from supplying our own energy, which we have done for the past 100 years, first from coal and then from North sea oil and gas, to potentially becoming dependent on Russia, Algeria and the middle east for gas.
The problem of relying on Russia, which was previously regarded by the west as a reliable energy source, became especially clear to Ukrainians on new year's day when the Russians cut their supplies. However, the ripple effects were felt thousands of miles away. Not only did France lose a third of its gas, but the whole of Europe, which relies on Russia for a quarter of its supply, was forced to realise that there are serious limits to the length of the spoon that can be used when supping with President Putin. Clearly he will readily use his abundance of hydrocarbons for political purposes, in this instance to punish the western-leaning Ukraines for considering joining NATO and the EU and to force them back into Russian hegemony
Our dependence on Russian gas looks set to grow. Russia has 28 per cent.the largest shareof the world's natural gas resources. Given that, should we ask what sort of a country is President Putin's Russia? According to Amnesty International, Russia has an abysmal human rights record. According to Freedom House, another human rights non-governmental organisation that assesses countries across a range of rights and issues as free, partly free or not free, Russia has declined from partly free to not free in the past two years. It says that Russians cannot change the Government democratically because the state's far-reaching control of the broadcast media and the growing harassment of Opposition parties make that impossible. There was strong evidence of an undercount in the vote for Opposition parties in the last election that kept them from attaining the 5 per cent. threshold required for parliamentary representation. Corruption is pervasive and libel laws are used to intimidate the independent media. Putin has just taken power to appoint the judges.
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It is a statement of the obvious that the history of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the middle east shows how difficult Governments find it to be other than indulgent to countries that are rich in energy. Middle eastern countries are, of course, significant gas suppliers. Levels of dependency on a country for energy supplies tend to make purchaser Governments significantly less prepared to challenge the supplier Government's democracy and human rights record, even though we and other western European countries assert that these values are key ones to be supported in foreign policy.
Europe's only really viable alternative source of gas is Algeria, which is fourth in the world as a gas exporter. However, Algeria, too, has serious human rights problems with Freedom house reporting that the right
Demonstrations are banned in Algiers while in other areas, peaceful demonstrations have been broken up, sometimes violently. The Algerian alternative source of gas does not seem to hold a better promise of contracting with a clear human rights conscience.
President Putin has recently engaged in a fruitful piece of diplomacy in this direction. He signed a contract for Russia to supply missiles and fighter aircraft to Algeria. Payment for these is so arranged that Russian influence is now woven deeply into the Algerian energy sector. At the same time, President Putin has tightened his monopoly of the gas transit route from the Caspian and central Asian regions, building up, therefore, a double or a triple potential stranglehold on European gas supplies.
It is noteworthy that it was Russia that was free to supply enriched uranium to Iran to limit concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation in that country. Iran has the second highest natural gas reserves in the world, behind only Russia, and there are emerging concords in the energy sector between these two countries.
Recently, the Kremlin controlled Gazprom indicated a wish to bid for Centrica, the UK's largest domestic supplier, which sells gas to 40 per cent. of British homes. Success would secure UK demand as well as supply for the Russians, who are not yet big players in the UK. It would be a surprising outcome if, as the UK energy market is liberalised primarily to create competition, it became dominated by a state-owned corporation, and not even a British one.
Is it any coincidence that as Russian democracy and human rights are forced downwards and Putin simultaneously extends both his own tentacles of energy supply and his influence over other countries with large gas reserves, that the largest investment currently being made in nuclear power is at Olkiluoto in Finland, which as a country famously shares a common border with
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Russia and whose domination by the Soviets during the cold war gave rise to the description of oppressive hegemony as Finlandisation?
The fact that we are timid about energy suppliers' human rights obligations should not be a surprise when one considers the temptations. Energy is vital to modern economies, and problems with supply have been the basis of some of the most important events in recent history, including the global recession in the early 1970s after the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries cut supplies and, in the UK, the miners' strike of 1974 that brought down a Tory Government and the strike in the 1980s that did not do so. Ultimately, the 10-year war between Iran and Iraq, and the two more recent wars in Iraq were strongly linked to, if not determined by, reliable energy supplies.
In addition, energy-rich countries have a great deal of buying power, and can offer lucrative contracts for western know-how effectively to extract resources from the ground or the seabed. Gazprom is keen to secure western technical help further to develop Russian resources. Those countries are often ready to purchase sophisticated arms from the west, which are necessary to shore up their security and protect the status quo. As chair of the all-party group on Burma, I know the power that hydrocarbons can give despotic Governments. European efforts to isolate the despicable Rangoon junta are constantly foiled by the French, whose oil company, Total, is the regime's largest corporate funder. Incidentally, that has led to the unacceptable belief that the Bush White House operates a more effective sanctions programme against Burma than the EU. The Burmese Yadana gas project, in which Total and the junta are partners, earns the regime up to $450 million a year, which it spends on boosting the military suppression of its citizens and which it uses as an aid to laundering drugs money for the purchase of foreign arms.
Although we do not buy hydrocarbons from Burma, that country's history teaches us another truth. Countries with immense natural resources may have lop-sided economies. A sudden inflow of dollars as prices rise can lead to an appreciation in domestic currencies, making non-energy sectors uncompetitive in the world and removing incentives to develop other industries, thus confirming the domination of oil and gas. The resource is concentrated so that cash passes through few hands and can easily be misdirected. The inherent instability of commodity prices impacts mostly on the poor, who do not have any way of hedging the risk. Such countries rarely have stabilisation policies to set aside surpluses to cushion the blow when prices fall. Indeed, there are few internal pressures in such countries to govern well at all, because those money flows mean that there is little need to raise revenue through taxes, so there is little need to secure the consent or support of their people, who have little leverage to call their rulers to account.
Oil and gas extraction do not require large teams of highly skilled indigenous workers, so the individuals in charge see little point in investing strongly in education, welfare or health. Indeed, they do not require huge numbers of unskilled workers. Many such countries grow slowly and do badly on the UN's human
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development index. Countries with strong institutions can benefit from the wealth that great natural resources bring, including Norway, which has about 1 per cent. of world gas reserves, and, historically, Britain. Both countries had a strongly entrenched representative democracy, freedom of speech and association, as well as the rule of law, long before they realised that they had hydrocarbons. None of the countries in the top five for gas reserves is classified by Freedom House as free.
Clearly, relying on such countries for our gas supplies can bolster unacceptable regimes and ensure that their citizens pay a high human rights and democracy price even as we pay a high financial one. Ultimately, the dangers and instability to the world from human rights abuses mean that the price that everyone pays is extremely high. Happily, that understanding appears to be compatible with the direction of Government policy. The energy review was partly initiated as a result of the UK becoming a net gas importer sooner than expected and the newly appreciated risks of an unreliable supply.
There are genuine gains to be made from renewable technologies using wind, wave and solar power. Clean-coal technology and carbon sequestration for coal and North sea oil have a future, while efficiency measures to reduce demand for energy are vital too. Campaigners protest that a fully committed Government should push through much stronger action on renewables and energy efficiency, but such measures often involve major changes to people's lifestyles and are hard to deliver. For example, wind farms are widely opposed because of their impact on the local environment. A proposed offshore wind farm in Redcar is deeply unpopular, because it is less than a mile from the shoreline of our main tourist bay. The proposed onshore wind farm at the steelworks is acceptable to everyone, however, because it is part of the industrial landscape. In a similar way many people resist microgeneration windmills on houses, recently exposed as dangerous and difficult. Wave power may have environmental problems, and the technology for carbon sequestration is only in its early stages.
The technology that should not be overlooked in establishing what is likely to be a mix of energy supply is nuclear power. At present it contributes about 19 per cent. of our electricity needs, but that could fall to 7 per cent. by 2020. Meanwhile, the Government's target for renewables, which many consider to be optimistic, is for an increase in renewable power from 3.4 per cent. to 20 per cent. by the same date, 2020. These figures show how the majority of the effort that we put into reducing CO 2 emissions through renewable energy is in danger of being wasted if old nuclear power stations are not replaced.
Importantly for human rights concerns, nuclear fuel can be bought in ways that do not endanger human rights in the same way as gas. It mostly comes from Canada and Australia. Clearly, nuclear power has problems, particularly its waste, though a recent draft statement from CoRWM, the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, envisages a deep underground repository which it describes as safe and
Early indications are that the petrochemical industry, as represented by businesses in Redcar, might be willing to support capital investment in nuclear power generation in return for very important stability of supply in the long term.
We should hope that the energy review can find workable solutions so that we can continue to benefit from a relatively affordable carbon-free energy source and so that, by expanding our gas purchasing from unacceptable Governments, we do not simultaneously make the world a worse place both for climate change and for human rights.
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