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IT’S eerily fascinating to watch our collective reactions to the global pandemic we are faced with and contrast it to our attitudes to climate change.
One is personal – there’s nothing like the prospect of imminent death to focus the mind – and immediate, the other is still largely abstract and seems to be on ever-receding horizons as we dumb ourselves with the bromide of endless “targets” and future dates for when we’ll act.
With one – coronavirus – the science is undisputed, with the other, we still wearily have to debate the facts with the monotony of false equivalence, industry shills, disinformation propagandists and media outlets who still think their task is to churn out fossil fuel industry messaging.
Last week coronavirus came to Scotland and we saw it reach 100,000 cases worldwide. In the global world where everyone celebrates the ability to fly anywhere for pennies there is only one way this is going. The virus knows no boundaries, respects no blue passports and isn’t interested in your national identity. The virus will sweep everywhere no matter how many renditions of God Save the Queen you are singing whilst washing your paws.
People are rightly unsettled by it, and it’s in these times that you look around and see that the people in charge seem to be Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Priti Patel. If you hadn’t been told not to, you’d be rubbing your eyes in disbelief and wondering is this all some kind of sick nightmare.
Well, yes it is.
But if the media have been softly buttering us up for emergency measures all week, the contrast and connections with the climate breakdown couldn’t be more stark. While some people seemed to think that the real issue with Covid-19 might be that it would interrupt “business”, a golf tournament or possibly even the SPFL, the general public was awakening to the reality of the threat.
Cutting through the crap as usual, was the tiny figure of Greta Thunberg. As she led a HUGE climate strike through downtown Brussels, a massive turnout of school strikers from across Belgium & Europe telling the EU to quit fossil fuels now, she said: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money, and fairy tales of eternal economic growth; how dare you.”
Here in Scotland we’ve been in such a state of denial for far too long. Mesmerised by constitutional change and transfixed by routine, habit and business as usual, we defer to inaction and default to inertia.
One giant beacon that represents this has been the absolute travesty of the Mossmorran ethylene plant, operated by Exxon-Mobil and Shell, by Cowdenbeath in Fife.
The plant has been dogged by questions of environmental justice for years as the plant rains fumes, noise and terrifying “flaring” on its helpless surrounding communities.
Last October, an investigation was launched into two explosions at the plant, further eroding trust between the operating companies and the local community.
The plant has been “temporarily closed” since August 12. ExxonMobil extended the closure in September, saying it would remain closed until at least November while it implements £140 million of measures to make it more “reliable”.
At the time of the shutdown, ExxonMobil said that two of the plant’s three boilers had failed. Since then it has been revealed that there were two explosions, which are being investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and were not disclosed by the company at the time.
Linda Holt, a spokesperson for local campaigners the Mossmorran Action Group, told DeSmog she was “shocked” to hear about the explosions. She said: “HSE described the breakdowns as ‘catastrophic’, and they are currently the subject of a live investigation.
“We were also told that neither HSE nor Exxon have so far identified the cause. Rumours have been circulating locally that the boilers exploded.
“For years local communities have lived with the fear of an accident at the plant; trying to hide explosions behind an announcement of a £140m investment will only exacerbate local mistrust and fear.”
Many local residents have also complained of adverse health effects from the environmental impact of the plant.
An HSE spokesperson confirmed an investigation into two explosions at the plant was ongoing.
The Scottish Government endlessly tells us that nothing can be done.
The issue is not just one for the long-suffering communities around Mossmorran.
As George Kerevan has written: “The beginning of February 2020 saw a repeat of intense flaring at the Shell-Exxon petrochemical complex at Mossmorran, near Cowdenbeath in Fife, lighting up the night sky like bright sunshine and pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in vast quantities.
“A damning Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) report in November 2017 listed Mossmorran as the third biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in Scotland (after INEOS at Grangemouth and the now-closed Longannet power station). At that point, the plant hit a 14-year high for carbon dioxide emissions, unnecessarily pumping 885,580 tonnes of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
“Shell’s separate operation at Mossmorran added another 200,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, taking the total to 1.1m tonnes. That suggests that, as Scotland missed its 2017 emissions target by 2m tonnes, half of that failure is down to Shell and Exxon at Mossmorran.”
Nor is this just a Scottish issue.
AN investigation from Influence Map this week informed us new evidence has emerged showing “US oil major ExxonMobil met with European Commission officials in an attempt to influence the European Green Deal on climate change, three weeks before the plan’s announcement in December 2019”.
Notes from the November 21 meeting (obtained by InfluenceMap via a freedom of information request from the commission) show ExxonMobil representatives pushed for the EU Commission to change its approach to climate regulation in the transport sector, including removing the EU’s strict CO2 vehicle tailpipe standards, in what appears to have been an effort to stall a push towards electric vehicles.
A direct extract from the meeting notes indicate the un-named ExxonMobil officials argued that the EU should “give serious consideration to extending ETS (Emissions Trading Scheme) beyond stationary sources. Tail pipe emission legislation should be substituted with power plant to wheel emission regulation.”
The European Commission’s subsequent Green Deal announcement included increased ambition for the transport sector, including plans for stricter standards for internal combustion engines. However, the commission did commit to an impact assessment on whether to include road transport into the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), a policy seemingly pushed by ExxonMobil in the meeting but opposed by climate policy experts such as Transport Environment and Carbon Market Watch.
The new evidence is the latest example of ExxonMobil’s attempts to influence climate legislation globally and comes after the US oil major’s lobbyists avoided a ban from the European Parliament in 2019 after failing to attend a hearing on climate denial.
NOW, finally, somebody seems to be acting.
The Scottish Greens are calling for an urgent independent inquiry into the future of Exxonmobil in Mossmorran, including developing a plan to close the plant and invest in clean, green industries in the area instead.
They are also asking that ministers urgently meet with communities surrounding the plant to hear their concerns and act immediately to prevent any further flaring and limit the disruptive noise and vibrations that are damaging local people’s sleep and health.
Their statement read: “Mossmorran has been served countless warnings, final warnings and complaints from local communities but we’re still waiting for decisive action from the Scottish Government.
“The pollution regulator, SEPA, now appears to be so powerless that when the last ‘unplanned flaring’ took place all they could do was tweet their disappointment from the sidelines.”
This is a Scottish emergency as dire and awful as Covid-19.
In the year when Glasgow hosts COP26. the Scottish Government needs to show some real leadership and the focus of our fears and our actions should not just be about preventing a virus but about preventing the spread of our climate disaster.
We must start by washing our hands of ExxonMobil and moving to net-zero Scotland.