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No Planet B, with Robert Newman - The Gas Rigs and Food Banks Are Booming

Should the government be paying for corporations to drill for gas when people are struggling to eat?
September 3, 2012, 7:00am

Wotcher, my name's Robert Newman and I'm here to write about longboarding in conflict zones. VICE have given me a strict remit, a tick box of rules and regulations which each of my longboarding pieces should follow. 1) Stick to longboarding, 2) don't stray into politics and 3) above all, don't go on about how inequality is bad for the planet so that you come across like some Reclaim The Streets outreach worker wandering lost through the pages of a hipster magazine, nine-tenths of which he doesn't understand, while forgetting to mention longboarding in any way, shape or form. (Tick. Tick. Tick.)

I'm a writer and comedian. A few years ago I recorded a comedy TV show/DVD called Robert Newman's History of Oil. My writing has appeared in The Guardian and in the Movement of the Landless (MST) newsletter in Brazil. My new novel (the working title isBramble, Oil and Coffee, but I'm not sure about it) comes out in April published by Cargo.

Hope you enjoy my tale of hanging ten on a 1 in 3 hill in Chiapas! - Robert "Long Board" Newman

What’s the connection between the UK’s eight new deep-water gas rigs and the need for 200 new food banks? Could it the £3billion subsidy package being doled out by the government to transnational gas corporations instead of to those in need? When you think about it, £3bn is a very big slice of the welfare pie, isn’t it?

Lately, news presenters have taken to asking, “Can we afford a welfare state?” But that’s the wrong question. The question should be: “Can we afford two – one for humans and one for corporations?” No country can afford to run two welfare states, of course, and so really the question is, “Who gets the pie – carbon-based life forms or big business?”

…Which is not a question you’re going to hear on Newsnight, where the story goes like this: the gas rig boom is happening simply because a high gas price has made offshore drilling profitable again.

But if that’s the case, if it’s all about supply and demand, then why does the oil and gas lobby need to chisel billions in “new field allowances” from the taxpayer Community Chest before sinking their drill-bits into the West Shetland deep-water basin?

Now, I’m not saying that there’s no link at all between gas-price bonanza and drilling jamboree. There is. Only it’s not the one we’re told it is, and it’s got nothing to do with supply and demand. The real link is that gas firms have spent their record-breaking profits on high-end, state-of-the-art lobbying with spectacular results. It’s amazing what gazillions can buy.

First off, the oil and gas lobby get the EU to list natural gas as a green fuel. That’s right. You heard. Gas. The famous hydrocarbon. The same gaseous, gassy, gas-like substance that by 2030 will be responsible (according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) for 11 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. As sinister reclassifications go, calling gas a "green fuel" is right up there with Soviet propaganda listing the Ukrainian famine as a bumper harvest, or with Neil Diamond’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

After prevailing upon the EU to greenwash gas, and then scrounging that £3bn in benefits, the gas lobbyists have lined up a finance bill for next year which will guarantee that UK taxpayers cover the gas industry’s clean-up costs, as well as paying for "Derrick Dismantlement" (who I believe also played bass for UK Subs).

Is long-term welfare dependency infantilising the energy companies? Might there be a link between the mess they leave everywhere and the fact that we always clean up after them? Who knows? Not me. But one thing is clear from the gas industry’s nervy stipulation that you, not they, will pick up the tab for dismantling tapped out derricks. It tells you all you need to know about whether even the gas industry itself believes it’s a fuel with a future. As Malcolm Webb, the chief executive of lobby group Oil & Gas UK admits, these state subsidies will only "delay the decommissioning of oil and gas infrastructure".

Or, in other words, "We are a sunset industry, but three billion quid will postpone for a few years the moment when the last helicopter lifts off from a rusty platform, abandoning it to the toxic waves littered with fish kill."

I shall try to remember the phrase “delay the decommissioning of oil and gas infrastructure” the next time someone tells me that, instead of slagging off BP and Centrica, I should face up to the fact that their profits drive everyone’s pensions. I mean, let’s suppose a 20-year-old starts paying into her pension in 2012. Given the new retirement age of – what is it now, 79? – she’s not going to draw her first pension payment until 2091. Those rigs will be long gone by then.

Of course, in terms of emissions, I could be glad that they’re not talking about next generation gas rigs, or at least I could were it not for the fact that the Treasury has spunked three billion English pounds – sorry, did I mention that figure yet? – on corporate welfare.

And, apart from anything else, what a massive repudiation of human ingenuity this gas subsidy is! Divvy up that £3bn among 30,000 start-up companies, and you’re telling me you wouldn’t create more meaningful, long-term jobs than this fossil fuel stipend? But the belief in the superiority of top-down, grandstanding capital investment projects goes hand in hand with contempt for the plans, ideas and capacities of the public. Who wants to waste time on 30,000 piddling little start-ups when you can shake hands on monster deals with the big boys of the global oil and gas biz?

Governments left and right always justify welfare cuts by pitting mobility scooter against needle exchange, or soft play area against old people’s home. Who deserves it most, they say, students or cleaners? Old or young? But when we’re running not one, but two welfare states, that’s a totally fake scenario. The real choice is between playgrounds or gas rigs, between Meals On Wheels or The City of London Currency Speculators’ Maintenance Allowance.

Just as a hurricane gathers its force far out at sea before ripping through buildings inland, so the money diverted from human welfare to fund this year’s 64 percent rise in drilling rigs in Fair Isle, Faeroes and Bailey has yet to make landfall. By 2016, half a million UK citizens are expected to have recourse to food banks. What’s happening offshore today will, in a few years, rip through homes and livelihoods, streets and whole neighbourhoods, in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Follow Robert on Twitter: @mrrobertnewman

Illustration by Sam Taylor: @sptsam

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