Saturday, August 25th 2012, 4:25 PM EDT
A proposal for the biggest infrastructure project in British history has shaky foundations but some powerful friends
An extraordinary picture of the state of our public life has come to light in recent days, in accounts of the involvement of some of our most senior politicians in the vast, lucrative and expanding industry of “renewable energy”.
At the centre of the picture is David Cameron, who last month nominated Lord Deben (formerly John Gummer) as the new chairman of the influential and supposedly “independent” Committee on Climate Change, set up to advise government on energy policy under the Climate Change Act. This is despite the fact that Lord Deben’s array of environmental business interests includes chairmanship of Forewind Ltd, a consortium of four energy firms planning the world’s largest, and most heavily subsidised, offshore wind farm in the North Sea.
Lord Deben’s suitability will be assessed on September 4, when he is interviewed by the Commons select committee on energy and climate change, chaired by Tim Yeo MP. Yeo was a junior environment minister under Lord Deben when the latter was environment secretary in the 1990s.
Mr Cameron has also lately taken a very active interest in a new £30 billion project for a tidal barrage across the Severn estuary, which he discussed at Downing Street last month with the former Labour Cabinet minister Peter Hain, acting on behalf of a consortium organised by a tiny Welsh company, Corlan Hafren – of which Deben was until very recently a director.
Attention has lately been drawn to the declared business interests of both Lord Deben and Mr Yeo – who last year earned more than £200,000, on top of his MP’s salary of £80,000, working for companies mostly involved in “green” energy schemes. The apparent exception was his role as “environmental adviser” to Eurotunnel, by whom he was paid up to £1,000 an hour. But Eurotunnel, it turns out, is planning to run a £220 million “interconnector” power cable through its service tunnel, to provide back-up from French nuclear power stations for the times when our wind turbines don’t supply enough power to the national grid.
Turbines – of the type that earn Mr Cameron’s father-in-law, Sir Reginald Sheffield, £1,000 a day on his Lincolnshire estate – are so unreliable that they could never hope to meet our EU obligation to source nearly a third of our electricity from “renewables” within seven years. That is 10 times more than wind power generates at present. Hence Mr Cameron’s sudden interest in a new Severn barrage scheme (though the idea was rejected by the Coalition in 2010 as being far too expensive) and his talks with the peculiar little company Corlan Hafren, which we are told could supply “5 per cent” of our electricity needs by 2022 with a new version of the barrage, funded by more than £30 billion from “Kuwait, Qatar and other sovereign wealth funds”.
Until last week, Companies House showed Lord Deben as a director of the company, which has registered assets of only £91. Listed among its shareholders, the largest of whom is a formerly bankrupt Welsh property entrepreneur, is another company, holding a sixth of the shares, with the imposing name of Sancroft International. Thanks to diligent researches by readers of the climate-sceptic blog Bishop Hill, it emerges that the six shareholders of Sancroft, an environmental consultancy which also acts as a vehicle for the earnings of Lord Deben, are Deben himself, his wife and their four children, one of whom, Ben Gummer, is a Tory MP.
All of which might focus further attention on the proposed Severn barrage itself, a vast concrete wall stretching 11 miles across the Bristol Channel from Somerset to south Wales, possibly incorporating a motorway and a railway, and also 1,000 turbines, which, we are told, would have the “capacity” to generate “6.5 gigawatts” of electricity. But what is often not understood about tidal barrages is that, like wind turbines, they only generate power intermittently, according to the tides. So the actual output of a Severn barrage, as confirmed in 2007 by Lord Porritt’s Sustainable Development Commission, would only be 22 per cent of its “capacity”.
In other words, the barrage’s contribution to the grid would average out at only 1.43 gigawatts, which is roughly the same as the power produced, much more consistently, by one large gas-fired power station – costing only £1 billion to build. A single nuclear power station, such as that proposed for Hinkley Point further down the estuary, could produce the same amount for a fraction of the same capital investment and with only minimal fuel costs. The barrage would thus be a ludicrously expensive way to produce a relatively small amount of electricity.
So, firstly, why has the idea of wasting so much money suddenly so seized Mr Cameron that he has asked Oliver Letwin to liaise with Corlan Hafren in pushing the scheme, which we are told would be piloted through the Commons by Mr Hain? The answer seems to be that the Prime Minister is now uncomfortably aware that he hasn’t a hope of meeting that EU renewables target with wind turbines (and Brussels does not count nuclear power as “renewable”). Furthermore, what would be the biggest infrastructure project in our history might temporarily create, it is claimed, “30,000 jobs”. What the PM probably doesn’t understand, because his advisers might not have told him, is just how small a contribution the scheme would make to our EU target.
What makes this even odder, however, is that the Government could contemplate handing such a mammoth project to a company which is currently showing only £91 in its accounts, representing the contributions of its various shareholders. The answer to this puzzle must lie in the central involvement in the company of Lord Deben, who in 2007 was commissioned by Mr Cameron to produce a report for the Conservative Party entitled Blueprint for a Green Economy. Sancroft’s current managing director is Adrian Gahan, formerly Mr Cameron’s adviser on energy and climate change policy, who played a key part. behind the scenes. in pushing the Climate Change Act through Parliament.
There were signs last week that Lord Deben was anxious to distance himself from the controversy building up around his involvement with Corlan Hafren. He told The Guardian that he had not been a director since June, although this was only registered with Companies House last Monday. But we must return to the question we began with: is it really acceptable that in 10 days’ time the confirmation of his chairmanship of the most influential body guiding government policy on energy and climate change should be in the hands of a committee of MPs chaired by Tim Yeo? This means that these two men at the centre of shaping our energy future are both involved financially with an industry which stands to make billions from what is, potentially, one of the most dangerous wrong turns in our country’s history.
As I have observed before, the Severn barrage would not only be a grotesque waste of money, but would have a devastating affect on the ecology of the lower Severn estuary, damaging inter alia the tidal flats where huge numbers of wading birds feed. This has provoked opposition from an array of environmental lobby groups, including the RSPB, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, who claim that it would be illegal under the EU’s Habitats Directive.
The new scheme, it is claimed by Corlan Hafren, would get round this by leaving more of the mudflats exposed, making it possible for us to claim to Brussels that we were providing the birds with “compensation” habitat for that which was lost.
The last time this trick was played, on a much smaller scale, was when a Cardiff Bay barrage was proposed in the 1990s. The government then got its way with Brussels by promising “compensation” feeding grounds further up the coast, by allowing the sea to flood a large area of the Gwent Levels, which had been reclaimed from it since Roman times. The environment minister who negotiated this device for getting round the EU law was none other than John Selwyn Gummer. But it would be much harder to convince the EU that a barrage right across the estuary – putting an end, among much else, to the Severn Bore – was not in serious breach of the Habitats Directive.
How ironic it would be, then, if a monster project conceived only to meet our obligations under one EU directive – since Article 5(2) of the Renewables Directive was originally drafted, on Britain’s insistence, specifically to permit a Severn barrage, though it is now more generally worded – was found to be illegal under another EU directive.
For this and other reasons, I very much doubt that Lord Deben’s pie-in-the-sky scheme will ever go ahead. But he can always console himself financially with his earnings from that monster wind farm in the North Sea. It should provide enough for a chairman of the Committee on Climate Change to retire on quite comfortably.