By Ewa Jasiewicz
On October 29th of last year, myself and 20 other activists from all over the country sneaked into EDF's new Gas Fired power station in West Burton and shut it down, climbing up chimneys and occupying them for a week. We were protesting the governments 'Dash for Gas' – the drive to make gas account for over 50% of our energy for the next 30 years. It was the UK's longest power station protest shut-down and resulted in one of the biggest damages claims against activists in history. EDF sued us for £5 million but were forced to back down within three weeks after a massive public outcry, including 64,000 people signing a petition telling them to drop their suit. We were all sentenced this June and escaped prison sentences but not hundreds of hours of community service. Now the wider group No Dash for Gas is planning a return to West Burton this summer for a bigger, broader four-day direct action involving hundreds entitled 'Reclaim the Power'. What's the point of all this? Why the action? Why target Gas?
No Dash For Gas protesters scale cooling towers at West Burton power station in Nottinghamshire
The UK government is embarking on an energy policy that will see up to 40 new gas-fired power stations built by the 'Big Six' energy companies that control 99% of our domestic energy. This will make the UK dependent on a dirty, imported, unsustainable fossil fuel for the next 30 years. It will drive the average family heating bill up by hundreds of pounds. And it will open the floodgates to fracking, which is overwhelmingly opposed by communities who have experienced earthquakes and contaminated groundwater as a result. Figures from Ofgem show that in 2011 the average energy bill across Britain and Northern Ireland rose by £150, with £100 of this due to the rising cost of gas. Going for gas will also violate our own legal carbon reduction targets – 80% by 2050 - which were insufficient to begin with. Gas is a fuel we can't afford, environmentally or economically.
The action we undertook was small but comparable to those being taken around the world, daily, by people defending themselves from resource grab and climate change. Like the indigenous communities in Turtle Island (Canada) defending themselves from destructive Tar Sands extraction, or families in Poland blocking roads and sabotaging attempts to drill for shale gas in their lands, or Palestinians staying on their land in the face of military occupation and settler expropriation; or activists in West Papua keeping their land, rivers and culture free of colonial copper mining. The struggle against corporate or state control of public resources and energy is the struggle for resource sovereignty, for democracy.. Whether its land or water, our atmosphere or sources of energy, these struggles are connected and the we feel their impacts wherever we are in the world.
"The different power we're talking about is the power that’s needed to change not just how we power our lives but who has power over our lives."
Poverty in the UK is rising. With three food banks opening every week, it's not just the case of one in four families choosing between heating and eating, it's that many can't afford either. Domestic energy has gone up by a whopping 250% in the past eight years and six million households are 'fuel poor'. Seven thousand two hundred people died (an average of 60 per day over winter) in the UK because they couldn't keep warm enough last year. Poor housing and soaring bills were part of this shocking statistic. Of a recent survey by Unite the Union, the UK's biggest trade union, the top concern was affording mounting energy bills. Almost one in three children (27%) is growing up in poverty and wages have plummeted to their relative lowest since 1921. With trade union agreements covering just 23% of workplaces today compared to over 80% in 1979, organised public power is at a low ebb. But anger, and hope, are not.
Reclaim the Power – the event being organised by No Dash for Gas this summer - is about reclaiming popular initiatives and resistance for social and economic transformation. We are facing climate crisis, economic crisis and social crisis. These crises are united by a crisis of power for creating genuine democracy. A power which if we had it could challenge and overcome the others we face. Energy companies are writing energy policy, wooing the government through pay-per-schmooze opportunities and setting the climate agenda in the process. The government's own Committee on Climate Change have said powering the UK by renewable energy is possible and cheaper and that the dash for gas will 'tear up the climate change act' - but they are being ignored. In May MPs voted against setting a de-carbonisation target for the UK. The dash for gas is turning into a sprint.
“We want to keep the lights on” is the mantra uttered by energy companies and politicians to justify fossil-fuels-as-usual. But we want to keep the lights on too. For millions of people in this country, hooked up to pre-payment meters, it's poverty that shuts them down into darkness; for millions around the world affected by drought and flooding, whether its Bangladesh of Berkshire, it's climate change and inequality that rob us of our power – physical and political.
A different power is possible. Not just the transition to renewable energy – which in Germany makes up 20% of its mix, Italy 35%, Denmark 45% and Norway's 97% whilst the UK lags behind on ten per cent. The different power we're talking about is the power that’s needed to change not just how we power our lives but who has power over our lives. It isn't just a problem that six energy companies control a market (whether that's fossil fuels or renewables); it's the fact that energy is marketised in the first place. The different power we're talking about needs to come from activism, popular resistance and movements uniting that can put power back in the hands of a majority to make the kind of world that we can actually live in. Reclaim the Power this August is a step in that direction. People from all walks of life - pensioners, workers, students, disabled activists, and children will be coming to protest for a fossil fuel free future and for real democratic change. Join us.
Ewa Jasiewicz is a No Dash for Gas, Fuel Poverty Action and trade union activist. She was one of the 21 protestors who occupied and shut down West Burton gas-fired powerstation for eight days in October-November 2012, and is helping organise Reclaim the Power, the event run by No Dash for Gas this summer.
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