Protecting the Planet

(a WEA course)



Week 1

Week 3

Week 4

Week 5 

Imagining Other Index Page  


Week 2. Case Studies:

1 air pollution and motor vehicles:

I want to use these case studies to demonstrate some applications of the principles noted above, and to begin to link the issue of pollution to specific industrial or commercial practices.


The most obvious consequence of air pollution, as noted already, is illness.  Such illnesses as asthma and bronchitis are on the increase – almost certainly triggered by air pollution.

Particulates are known to be harmful, as they penetrate deep into the lungs. They cause DNA mutations as well (Wikipedia). Research at the University of Southern California, in 2004, (reported in the Guardian, November 2004) identified another problem: when they enter the lungs, the tiny particles cause inflammation of the arteries which eventually builds up into a hardening that can cause heart disease and heart attacks! 

These particles are measured in micrometres, and those that fall between 2.5 and 10 micrometres are inhalable.


They come mainly from the burning of fossil fuels such as oil (and diesel engines are the main offenders here), but other industrial processes such as smelting and working metals also produce them, as do building works and power stations (especially coal – see below). Not to mention aircraft (the controversy over the expansion of Heathrow comes in here!), and ships, which are heavy polluters but are not, I believe, subject to regulation...


To illustrate the nature of air pollution, (we have already mentioned factories and chimney smoke), it is useful to list some of the ingredients of the exhaust from the internal combustion engine: carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons.


Some of these (nitrogen oxides) are comparatively harmless in themselves, but as noted, when combined with other ingredients such as small particles, and especially when mixed with water (i.e. rain – or the moisture in our lungs) then the resulting solution is a harmful acid (causing ‘acid rain’...) When sunlight acts on these mixes of chemicals there is a photochemical reaction, causing a particularly nasty kind of smog.


Other outputs from the internal combustion engine – carbon monoxide (which suffocates), and hydrocarbons (which are carcinogenic), are far from safe!



John Vidal article, Guardian (G2) 20.03.13) – distressing to see that photochemical smog is still around... (my notes on this were first written in the ‘70s and ‘80s – and the Clean Air Act goes back to 1955!!). There are 5.4 million people in Britain with asthma, and tens of thousands of others with respiratory diseases – yet the air quality in many of our major cities is still very bad. 29,000 people a year die from air pollution. The main offender is diesel engines... The cost to the NHS is up to 17% of its budget. London has 4,300 deaths a year. We could be subject to fines from the EU (air pollution laws were passed 13 years ago), and the WHO has warned that NO2 is harmful at even lower levels than set by Europe. ClientEarth has taken the government to court: the issue is that it is all very well having EU laws, but if there is no ability to ensure they are enforced what is the point?


London air pollution (Nitrous oxides, sulphur dioxide etc) may have contributed to 3,000  deaths in 2005: Mayor Johnson has taken various measures (hybrid buses, smoother traffic-flows, cycling, opposing expansion of Heathrow), but nationally we are not doing anything. Caroline Lucas attacked govt for not meeting EU P10 limits (should have been met in 2005). Ecologist magazine, June 2009.


We will come across some of these ingredients (in car exhausts) again, when discussing other consequences of air pollution below. However, it is worth mentioning the issue of lead in petrol: in order to reduce the amount of refining that petrol needed to give a smooth combustion, lead was added. Scientists began to be concerned about the effects of tiny lead particles in the atmosphere on the lungs – especially of children. Children living in inner city areas, or near roads with heavy traffic, it was suggested, might even suffer a loss of IQ (a measure of the abilities of the brain). There was a long campaign – because, as ever, petrol producers maintained that it would be too expensive to change the fuel (or that the customer would not pay!). However, eventually the government stepped in and we now have “unleaded” petrol.


This story does illustrate another aspect of the issue: the power of vested interests – in this case the roads and car manufacturing lobby. Vested interests are always lobbying government to try to convince

them that there is no problem. Back in 1975, the US auto industry predicted that the 1975 clean Air Act would wipe out car manufacturing overnight (Simon Caulkin, Observer, 31/8/2003). In

Britain, whilst Shell and BP argue in favour of cutting greenhouse gases (see later), the CBI has warned that the European Environmental Directive could be “the last nail in the coffin of

manufacturing”. Given this, Stephen Tindale, director of Greenpeace says: “The current gulf between a company’s green credentials and the behaviour of trade associations” risks exposing companies as



There were also signs that the ‘New Labour’ government responded to such anti-environmental lobbying: Tony Blair, early in 2005, raised the permitted levels of carbon dioxide emissions, having originally

accepted a target of 20% reduction over three years. Cornal Walsh (Observer Business, 6/3/2005) says the United States withdrawal from Kyoto was due to corporate pressure: companies such as the oil

giant ExxonMobil have given large sums of money to political parties that will adopt their line and oppose further controls (according to Friends of the Earth, in the same Observer article by Walsh).


It is also revealing to note how the car and oil industries put up a long resistance to the idea that they ought to be researching alternative fuels. [Neale, in Fairweather at al 1997]


There are powerful voices in favour of more cars: the British Roads Federation has long campaigned against cuts in road building, and it is a significant donor to the Conservative Party, which it (rightly?) sees as more road-friendly. Even the RAC and AA are of concern to anyone who wants to see car use reduced, since they – naturally – are not in favour of any reduction of car use. If you want to join a road rescue/protection organisation that does not campaign for more roads, there is an Environmental Transport Association, ETA. (“The motoring organisation that won’t cost the earth”!).


Updates on health and related effects of pollution:

(i) June 14th 2016 (Damian Carrington, Guardian): growing body of evidence says that air pollution can affect mental and cognitive health – especially in children. New research in BMJ Open examined more than 500,000 under-18s in Sweden and compared pollution exposure with records of medicines prescribed for mental illness. Increases in PM and NO2  (of 10mcg/m3) levels both showed increases in mental health problems (4% and 9% respectively). EU and WHO limit for NO2 is 40mcg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre).

In other words, even a small increase may have an effect – and this puts into question the whole notion of ‘safe levels’...

(ii) 6th Sep 2016 (same source): Recent research has suggested links between magnetite particles and Alzheimer’s disease, and that air pollution can significantly increase the condition. Toxic nanoparticles have been found in human brains, according to the National Academy of Sciences. They found ‘millions of magnetite particles per gramme of freeze-dried brain tissue’ – magnetite is an oxide of iron, and it can create free radicals. This doesn’t prove a cause, but is significant.

Yet again, we find an ‘unintended consequence’ of pollution!


On the theme of “growth”: the number of cars on the roads in Britain has doubled over the past 30 years, from 10 million to 23 million. Apart from pollution, the major negative consequence of the car is deaths and accidents: some 300,000 people are killed or injured every year on the roads in Britain.


Car Emissions (these figures are very dated, but still give an idea of the range):

Examples of CO2 emissions by type: 

Low end:

A. VW Polo BlueMotion 1.4: <100 (g/km)

B. Peugeot 107 1.0: 101 – 120


C. Fiat Panda 1.2: 121 - 150

E. Renault Scenic 1.4: 166 – 185

High end:

G. Porsche Cayenne: 225 (some Porsches 300)


Average CO2 emissions in cars sold in EU: 160 g/km

EU target: all new cars must emit average 130 g/km by 2012.

Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (smt.co.uk):


·  Average new car CO2 emissions have fallen by 26.4% since 2007 to 121.4g/km in 2015, with a 2.6% decline on 2014.

·  New cars were, on average, over 20% lower CO2 emitting than the average car in use. ·  Total CO2 emissions from all road transport has fallen by 9.6% since 2007, with a 10.6% reduction from cars (Source: DECC). Emissions have fallen despite a rise in vehicle use and the number of vehicles on the roads.

·  Diesels have played an important role in delivering lower CO2 emissions. By buying diesel, UK motorists have prevented almost 3 million tonnes of CO2 from going into the atmosphere over the past 14 years – enough to fill the Royal Albert Hall 16,000 times over.

The previous Euro-5 standard, introduced in 2011, focused on PM (or soot) from diesel cars, requiring an 80% reduction in these emissions.

Diesel particulate filters (DPFs) that capture 99% of all PM were developed to meet this, and are now fitted to every new car. Today, PM from cars meeting Euro-5 is equivalent to just one single grain of sand per kilometre driven.

With Euro-6, the emphasis has shifted to NOx, reflecting concerns about the emerging science connecting these emissions with respiratory problems.

How much cleaner is Euro-6?
This latest standard mandates a 56% cut in diesel NOx emissions compared with Euro-5.

Euro 5 standards: Petrol NOx: 0.06g/km Diesel NOx: 0.18g/km Diesel PM: 0.005g/km

Euro 6:                                       0.06                              0.08                             0.0045


Getting round the law:

Once again it has to be said that business can always find a way round regulations: the 2016 scandal involving Volkswagen has caused a lot of alarm. 11 million diesel cars were fitted with software that allowed them to cheat emission tests, and were sold from 2008. The software changed the performance of the engines under test conditions, with the result that on the road the engines were producing emissions above the permitted level.

The company has put aside 16.2 billion euros to deal with the scandal and is facing legal cases around the world. A chief executive (Martin Winterkorn) has resigned and is being investigated by prosecutors – but he was paid 7m euros last year... VW owns Audi and Porsche. 

This was not the first time such cheating occurred: in 1973 Chrysler, Ford, GM, Toyota and VW all had to remove ambient temperature switches which controlled emissions. In 1996 GM was fined $11m and recalled 470,000 vehicles because of software that disengaged emissions controls unless the car was being tested. Previous similar cases include Fiat of Brazil, Honda, and no fewer than 7 heavy truck manufacturers (in 1998 they were fined a record amount at that time).

Aside from using software to cheat tests, many cars have been found to have a different level of emissions and/or fuel consumption when on the road conditions are compared to manufacturers’ claims. Note that all the above covers both CO2 and NO2 emissions...

2 acid rain

As an example of how pollutants can change when exposed to the environment, acid rain is formed when gases in the air dissolve and make the rain acidic. The main ‘culprit’ here is sulphur, in coal. Sulphur dissolved in water makes sulphuric acid. In Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, lakes have been made so acid that the fish die (with consequences for whatever or whoever normally would eat the fish); trees have been killed; and in cities, buildings begin to crumble as the acid eats away at the stonework. The added complication here is that the gases from chimneys are carried away in the wind, and the acid rain formed is most likely to fall on distant countries – so, more and more these days, there is an international dimension to the problem. It seems inevitable, if we are going to deal with this problem, that it cannot be left to business and industry alone, but government and international bodies must be involved.


- acid rain is now known to affect the oceans (Green World 65, Summer 2009):

- pH indicates the alkalinity of water – 7 is neutral, i.e. anything below 7 is acidic, and above 7 is alkaline or base. The pH of the ocean’s open water has been 8.2 for millions of years, now (since burning fossil fuel for couple of centuries) it is down to 8.1 or 8.05 (8.1 is 25% more acidic), and this damages coral reefs, & microscopic life at the base of the food chain;


– acidity goes down to 1,000 metres and in some places to 3,000 metres – ocean makes up 99% of planet’s living space – plankton control the carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle and part of the oxygen cycle – 3.6 billion yrs ago plankton began to produce oxygen, hence life could develop – every second breath we take is of oxygen from plankton; also plankton makes less calcium in more acidic water – we don’t know what effect this will have, though coral reefs (home to rich diversity of life) are dying


- acidification could lead to mass extinction: the previous 5 such events were all accompanied by acidification (last time, 65 m yrs ago, the dinosaurs died out – probably the gases came from a meteor strike). [Alanna Mitchell, author: The Hidden Ecological Crisis of the Global Ocean, pub: Oneworld.]


We cleared up a lot of the problem in 1980s by switching from coal to gas (little sulphur), catalytic converters (reduce nitrogen), scrubbers in factory chimneys, and this led to an 80% cut in acid rain. In the early ‘80s, 3m tonnes SO2 were emitted p.a. in Britain. But the sea is acid in places, and China has dirty emissions and acid rain, so it is still a problem…


Pre-industrial levels of SO2 were 280 ppm by volume, and by mid-century this is likely to be doubled to 560 ppm – plankton makes less calcium in more acidic water – we don’t know what effect this will have.


3. Coal:


Nov 2015: New Statesman has good overview of the history of the industry, by Martin Fletcher: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/energy/2015/11/last-days-big-k

The last coal mine in UK is closing down. Each day 3 or 4 trainloads of coal still go to Drax which provides 7% of our electricity. But three of its six generators have been converted to biomass, and 6 million tonnes of wood pellets are brought in from North America each year... Britain aims to shut down all coal-fired stations by 2025 (12 left).


Deep coal mining dates back to Tudor times and peaked during the arms race before the first world war, with 3,024 mines producing 292 million tonnes of coal, and employing 1.1 million people, in 1913. Bevin boys were 48,000 men brought in to keep the industry going in the second world war.


Since 1700 164,000 miners have lost their lives. Mining deaths did not fall below a thousand a year until well into the 20th century. 1,297 were killed and 20,000 injured in 1923.


1972 and 1974 miners’ strikes were a turning point: Wilson government increased wages dramatically.


1984 - 5 strike was triggered by a plan drawn up by the Thatcher government to close 20 unprofitable pits and lose 20,000 jobs. But Scargill played into the government’s hands:  the strike was called in the spring when demand was falling, he didn’t call a national ballot and split the union, undermining legitimacy of the strike, he also got money from Gaddafi and USSR. Before the strike there were 170 mines employing 148,000 workers, producing 120 million tonnes of coal. A decade later there were 30 mines, 7,000 workers, 50 million tonnes produced.

NUM has 800 members (was once half a million). Miners still employed don’t believe the reasons given for closing mines are good – rather see it all as political.


2015 three deep mines left but two closed in the summer.


Of 48 million tonnes of coal consumed last year, 42 million were imported (from Russia, US, Colombia).


March 2013: Friday 8th March 2013 – Daw Mill mine is closing as there is an underground fire which cannot be put out. 650 miners will be out of work. It is Europe’s largest coal mine and one of the few left in Britain. Terry Macalister adds that coal consumption for electricity has been growing by 30% year on year – coal is relatively cheap (cheaper than gas) New pollution controls don’t come in until 2015. 40% of electricity comes from coal, gas has 30% and nuclear etc have a much smaller share.


Shipments of coal to Britain from US, Russia, Colombia rose by 50% last year. India and China are increasing their coal-burning power stations, but there are anxieties in China about air pollution (and see below re India). In Britain, suppliers have to fit filters to screen out nitrogen oxides etc.


A new industrial emissions directive from Europe came into force in January.


March 2013: John Vidal, Guardian 11th March 2013: coal-burning plants in India are causing 120,000 deaths a year, according to a report from Greenpeace, based on research by a former World Bank head of pollution. Millions of Indians suffer from asthma as well. There is hardly any regulation or inspection of pollution. India generates 210 GW of electricity a year, mostly from coal – there are plans to approve a further 160GW annually.



Dec 2013: George Monbiot, 17th Dec 2013, has shocking figures for premature deaths from coal: 250,000 in China...


Extract: ‘A study by the Clean Air Task Force suggests that coal power in the US causes 13,200 premature deaths a year. In Europe, according to the Health and Environment Alliance, the figure is 18,200. A study cited by the alliance suggests that around 200,000 children born in Europe each year have been exposed to "critical levels" of methylmercury in the womb. It estimates the health costs inflicted by coal burning at between €15bn (£12.5bn) and €42bn a year...

Among the most polluting power stations in Europe, Longannet in Scotland is ranked 11th; and Drax, in England, is ranked seventh. Last week the House of Lords failed to pass an amendment that would have forced a gradual shutdown of our coal-burning power plants: they remain exempted from the emissions standards that other power stations have to meet.

While nuclear power is faltering, coal is booming. Almost 1,200 new plants are being developed worldwide: many will use coal exported from the US and from Australia. The exports are now a massive source of income for these supposedly greening economies. By 2030 China is expected to be importing almost five times as much coal as it does today. The International Energy Agency estimates that the global use of coal will increase by 65% by 2035. Even before you consider climate change, this is a disaster.’

Little has happened on Carbon Capture and Storage. This involves pumping condensed CO2 into underground ‘reservoirs’ for storage instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. Not only is the technology experimental (and the long-term feasibility of such storage is unknown) it appears that more fuel is needed by a power station that is going to capture and condense the CO2. So to run such a power station is more costly. Moreover, the chemicals used in the process are likely to go into the atmosphere, so the air quality is reduced (Wikipedia).


May 2015: Guardian is leading a divestment campaign – Keep it in the ground....

Some good news: 28th May, a key parliamentary committee recommends Norway should withdraw its sovereign wealth fund which is the world’s largest, from coal.


4. The Oil Industry – a walking disaster!


The impact of the oil industry is clear in a whole range of ecologically damaging situations. Such is the power of the industry, and its importance to governments, that it also has significant impacts on politics. Often the resultant civil conflict has caused death and suffering.

Here are a few examples of environmental damage by the oil industry (some of these are from New Internationalist 335, June 2001):

4.1 Exxon Valdez:   by Ewen MacAskill in Guardian 2/2/07:

US government scientists are about to publish a report on the situation in Prince William Sound, Alaska, where the Exxon Valdez spillage occurred 18 years ago in 1989:  11 – 38 millions of gallons of oil were spilled. It hit Bligh Reef. The tanker was on its way to California. The largest spill in US waters until the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 (below) in terms of volume released. But the arctic waters made access difficult. The spill covered 1,300 miles of coastline, and 11,000 square miles of ocean.

Salmon, sea birds, seals and otters were affected.

The crew’s ability was partly to blame, and the Raytheon Collision Avoidance system had not been maintained. There were other failings – stressed crew and not informed that coastguards were no longer issuing warnings of Bligh Reef, etc.

Dispersants failed (and some were not used because of toxicity fears), explosions were tried, and burning, (but these led to fumes harming villagers downwind). How water was tried but this killed plankton – food for bacteria and fungi which would otherwise have ‘eaten’ the oil. 


Clean-up crews suffered illnesses afterwards. Only 10% of the oil was actually cleared up.


In 2007, there were more than 26,600 gallons of oil still in the water, and in 2010 23,000 gallons lying on the sand – it was thought the pollution would gradually disappear, but it is only going at a rate of 4% a year, and even slower in the Gulf of Alaska. This means the oil could remain there for decades – some of it near beaches, and all of it a danger to wildlife. 


Between 10,000 and 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, 22 orcas, and unknown numbers of salmon and herring killed.


Meanwhile, “ExxonMobil posted the largest ever annual profit by a US company, $39.5bn (£20bn) yesterday.”  The Guardian also reports: ExxonMobil and Shell reported combined profits of nearly £90m a day.


- Shell’s CO2 emissions for 2005 were 102m tonnes (more than 150 countries produce each) Shell’s Chief Executive, Joeren van der Veer refused to confirm this figure (obtained from the company), nor would he say how much of their $23bn capital expenditure was going into renewable energy resources, except that it was a small amount.


Other dangers to the arctic:


- BPAmoco (a joint British/US company) is involved in plans to extract oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

- Dangers of encroachment into permafrost:  BP’s Alaskan Prudhoe Bay oilfield: closed after spill…as were Russian gas/ plants e.g. Sakhalin, Yamal,

- Settlements also bring environmental damage and HIV… New St 13.08.07

- There were over 100 oil spills in the Arctic over a two-year period in the late ‘90s.


4.2 Gulf of Mexico: Deepwater Horizon oil spill 2010


An explosion and fire in the semi-submersible Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit (MODU) killed 11 workers and injured 17 more. There was a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and it was the largest environmental disaster in US history.


The drilling platform was built in South Korea, owned by Transocean (whose record on accidents was poor), operated under the Marshalese flag of convenience and was leased to BP. It was capable of drilling at great depths – it went to a record 10,685 meters in 2009.


Oil started leaking at 8,000 barrels of crude per day. 4.9 million barrels were spilled in the end, making it the largest spill in American history.  In 2010 there were still a million barrels in the water.


Criticised for a ‘rush to completion’ of the well, poor management decisions, and no culture of safety on the rig. Six or seven faults in procedure and equipment. (Wikipedia)


Gulf of Mexico oil spill: three oil industry titans blame each other during questioning by US senators. 4m gallons of oil polluting the gulf, troops on the coast of Louisiana to try to protect it. BP America owned the well, and blames Transocean who owned the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig and the blowout preventer, Transocean blames Halliburton who cemented the well… (Suzanne Goldenberg, G 120510).


Less wildlife damaged (3,000 birds, 500 turtles, 64 dolphins) – and difficult to tell effects given seasonal variations (BBC).

‘The Deepwater Horizon operation saw the injection of 771,272 gallons (2,919,582 litres) of dispersant at depth, in addition to the 1,072,514 gallons (4,059,907 litres) used on the surface.

The impact of the deep water deployment is definitely an unknown unknown, as it has not been used on anything like this scale before.

Expeditions are planned to investigate the impact on reefs, but they have yet to report.

Other important investigations are going on into how quickly the oil is breaking down in the warm Gulf waters - something that should in principle happen much faster than in the icy conditions of Alaska's Prince Edward Sound, or the Cornish seas where the Torrey Canyon spilt its cargo in March 1967.

That rate will have practical implications for the seabirds that will come to winter along the Gulf coasts - the piping plover, the blue-winged teal and the northern pintail - because it will largely determine how much oil will be there to greet them.

Two decades on, the ecological impacts of Exxon Valdez are still being counted.

And while the warmer Gulf waters are unlikely to take quite so long to settle, even a preliminary reckoning will have to wait until the first wintering birds have returned, shrimping boats have cast their nets again right across their grounds, and the wetland grasses have had a first chance to shed their oily carapaces and sprout anew in a fresh Spring.’

(Richard Black, BBC).

4.3 The environment and politics: Shell and Nigeria:

In the Niger Delta, Shell has been extracting oil for some time. The resultant pollution (oil leaks ruining the land, gas flares poisoning the air) has been a cause for anger on the part of the local Ogoni people. Protests have been put down ruthlessly, with many killed by police and – it is alleged, by paramilitaries employed by the company and armed by the government.

In November 1995, a special court established by the military government illegally detained and tried some protesters on spurious charges. Convicted without due process, they and the “leader” Ken Saro-Wiwa were executed 10 days later, despite enormous international outcry.

The UN questioned the legitimacy of the Saro-Wiwa trial, to no avail (May 2009). It is alleged that there has been widespread brutality against the Ogoni, involving torture and the destruction of villages. Sadly, this is not an isolated occurrence. A recent report by human rights organization Global Witness documents the murders of more than 700 environmental and Indigenous-rights activists over the past decade – more than one killing a week, on average. (Greenpeace USA)

Update 2013: the son of the executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, also called Ken, is now a presidential aide; he alleges that the theft of vast quantities of oil from the pipeline ‘is on and industrial scale, and involves commodity traders, international [criminals] and a whole network of people. There are some allegations that the oil companies themselves are implicated.’ See John Vidal in The Observer, 06.10.13: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/oct/06/oil-theft-costs-nigeria


Extract follows:

"From the moment I got to the scene [the next day] I was suspicious," says Catholic priest Father Obi, appointed by Shell to be an official observer for the Bodo investigation. "The scene had been hurriedly deserted. Shell must have known what was going on. The military must have known. Everyone knew there was complicity. I am personally sure that Shell knew that its oil was being stolen. If the managers did not know, then those who they put in charge [of the operation]seemed to know. This [theft] could not have happened without the collusion of the authorities and the military." Obi is concerned that the official report has still not been published and is threatening to release his own.

It all adds up to organised crime stealing oil using the cover of the authorities, he says. "Why was a massive barge able to hold 10,000 barrels of oil being loaded at 2am with crude? Why did another catch fire? Why were excavators there? Why were local observers arrested the next day, their cameras confiscated and memory cards destroyed? Were the thieves being protected by the military? Was the company paying workers to clean up oil spilled in the process of theft they themselves were engaged in? Did Shell know its oil was being stolen from under its nose?" he asks.

4.4 Other issues


(i) Safety: (by Andrew Clark and Terry Macalister, in Guardian Financial, 8/12/2006)

In 2005, the BP Texas refinery exploded, killing 15 people – recently disclosed documents show the director responsible for running the refinery, Don Parus, knew that it was held together by little more than “Band Aid” and “superglue”.

Parus made remarks to an independent investigation, which was held after 23 fatal accidents in 30 years (the most recent involving a worker being boiled alive!).

The local fire brigade say that there is an average of one fire every week – 50 to 80 a year. The site director, appointed in 2002 had worried whether he could turn round the lax safety attitude single-handed, and even said: “killing somebody every 18 months seems to be acceptable at this site”. 

Many documents have been disclosed as a result of a legal settlement with a woman who lost both parents in the explosion.

An external report said there was “an exceptional degree of fear of catastrophic incidents” – and it was surprising how many workers going into the plant in the morning volunteered that they were thinking about safety and wondering whether they would go home!

BP has pledged to spend $7 billion to improve the safety and integrity of their US plants.


(ii) Politics:

- Shell’s involvement in Nigeria has been dealt with, but other conflict areas where the oil companies are involved include: Chad and Cameroon, Sumatra and Indonesia, and Tibet. And a consortium of oil companies operates in southern Sudan, where government-backed militia are persecuting opponents of the regime. In Sudan, Darfur has become a disaster zone. The consortium has given large sums of money to President Omar Bashir, and a Canadian Government sponsored study concluded that “oil is exacerbating conflict in Sudan”. The same army that is bombing and terrorising civilians is protecting the oil pipelines.


- Finally, I think no-one could be unaware of the involvement of US companies in Iraq, and particularly the oil company Halliburton. Here we have a case of the “revolving door” – where top industrial or commercial personnel are able to move into politics, thus retaining their contacts and promoting their commercial interests. From “assisting” in the repair of damaged oil extraction equipment after the Iraq war, they quickly moved to extracting oil and are said to have made $10 billion in contracts. Although they have not caused environmental damage directly, it has to be said that they operate in the interests of the USA, whose policies have created massive environmental damage (especially after the first Iraq war). We will deal with the power of this and other companies again under “inequality”.