The Network for Energy Sovereignty in Catalonia undertakes its first ‘Toxic Tour’

The group denounces the unsustainability of the current energy model dominated by monopolies and fossil fuels

04 busquem boltets radiactiusThe Network for Energy Sovereignty, a Catalan network formed by diverse social movements, NGOs and individuals that seeks to reclaim energy sovereignty (understood as the right of the population to decide), undertook a three day tour on 26-28 September this year with the participation of 50 people from Catalonia, the Spanish state, Europe and Mexico. The route took in more than 700 kilometres around Catalonia.

One objective of the tour was to denounce the bad practices of large corporations and the negligence of public institutions through a series of case studies on projects that have failed on social, environmental and financial grounds. All the projects involved shared the same element: affected communities were neither informed nor consulted. In the view of The Network for Energy Sovereignty, it must be questioned who decides on energy infrastructure and who stands to benefit from current energy policy. However, change is needed in the decision-making process and we demand change towards a more direct democracy.

The tour also had the objective of proposing alternative clean energies and to remind us of the victories of the social movements that have stopped projects that posed a danger to the environment or the health of the population, projects that could ruin local economies and stood in the way of the urgent environmental change needed to avoid climate change and preserve limited natural resources.

The Castor project – the failure of the first project financed with Project Bonds

A visit to the Castor project was the first stop on the Toxic Tour and it coincided with a Royal Decree on the same day announcing the green light for the compensation package agreed to the promoter, Florentino Perez’s ESCAL UGS, which would see the cost of the project passed onto the Spanish people. This measure was approved within a few days, and testimony from the Citizen Platform for the Defence of the Sénia alongside journalist Jordi Marçal, allowed tour participants to understand the current state of the Castor project and the facilities which are currently paralysed.19 ens sobra calor a finals de setembre2

The history of the Castor underground storage plant began at the end of the 1990s when ESCAL UGS (of which 66% is owned by ACS – Florentino Perez’s company that had no previous experience of gas infrastructure) managed to convince the Spanish government about the utility of the project. Initially it seemed as though Spain could convert itself into a gas transit country aimed at central and northern Europe, and it was viewed as cheaper to bet on Castor rather than install tanks on existing re-gasification terminals.

At the start of the construction project a consortium requested a loan from 19 banks to be repaid within seven years. In 2013 this debt was refinanced via a Project Bonds to the value of €1.43 billion, this time with an amortization period of 21.5 years. €300 million worth of these bonds were acquired by the European Investment Bank (EIB) which would be the last in line for compensation, and that also offered a credit line in case of failure. After summer 2013, the injection of gas began to increase and began to provoke earthquakes in the zone, and as a result the facility was shut down.[1] This year a Royal Decree approved the payment of €1.35 billion in compensation to the promoter. Thus, the debt is refinanced and will be paid over 30 years, in part by Spanish citizens.

Under the name of Enagas, the government will distribute payment rights of 30 years for the value of the project and will cede them to various banks – Caixa Bank, Santander and Bankia. Enagas will direct the operation and subsequently the banks will be able to sell the debt on the markets (as an electric deficit), or retain the debt on their balance sheets – in any case they will receive a profit of 4%. It will be Spanish citizens who will finally pay for the debt through increases to their electricity bills.

If the Spanish government had negotiated to reduce part of the debt with ESCAL UGS, the EIB could have covered part of it with the €200 million liquidity line that comes from the Project Bond Credit Enhancement. Again, the citizen taxpayer, this time at European level, has supported the financial risk of the operation which had already been shown to be non-viable and socially unjust. It remains to be seen where this €200 million of public money will end up and if the EIB will receive payments corresponding to their €300 million investment in the bonds.

Only strong political will can enable the battle against the main shareholder ACS and against the complicit public institutions in this case, with the aim of making the debt payable by those responsible.

In the current circumstances, of the possible scenarios considered in recent months (taking on the debt as part of the general budget of the state, nationalising the institutions, negotiating a hair cut on the debt or initiating a process to annul it indefinitely – a possibility that the Supreme Tribunal left open), it seems the worst option for the population has been chosen: the debt will be socialised in its entirety, leaving the door open for the debt to continue to grow and for the facility to still be used in the future.

Over the years very little has been explained about the Castor project. The local population has remained misinformed and at risk. Public opinion has been ignored and all aspects of the project have been decided in the corridors of Madrid, Brussels and in the stands of the Bernabéu stadium. This has been an unnecessary mega-project imposed from above.

High tension line: a project of ‘common interest’?

A project deemed at European level to be a strategic interest is being justified as a necessity to interconnect electricity networks between EU member states. This interconnection should have been able to permit at least 10% of the total production capacity of each country and could be destined for other EU countries. This has been agreed to by the European Commission and by the heads of state of EU governments.20140928_150155

The Toxic Tour visited the project in question: the MAT project in Girona, a high voltage line that features on the EU’s list of ‘Projects of Common Interest’. The section visited terminates in Catalonia, but the overall aim is the interconnection of the Iberian Peninsula with France.

In Catalonia, the principle arguments put forward for MAT according to the Generalitat are twofold. First, the necessity to improve the supply of electricity to the regions of Catalonia, in part to supply a high speed train (TAV) which supposedly needs a high tension line (400kv) to function. Second, to guarantee the interconnection between Spain and France. Nevertheless, the section of the TAV between Figueres and the border is already working with a 132kv line.

Frustratingly, the ‘precautionary principle’ and the Aarhus Convention on access to information and the participation of the public and access to justice in environmental concerns do not seem to have been applied in this case. It should be added that the minimum security distances were also not complied with. Ultimately, the impacts of the project are visible, and no study pertaining to the cited energy necessities have been either undertaken or published. In addition, the local communities residing where the line passes through have not, at any time, been informed or consulted.

Opposition to the MAT project started nearly ten years ago when the project was first announced. At that time the platform “No a la MAT i l´AMAM” – an association of councils and municipalities affected by the MAT – was set up alongside its French equivalent “Non a la THT”. In the view of the platforms, it is essential that the fight is conceived on both sides of the border. This was proven in the demonstrations of 2008 which mobilised 15,000 people in Perpignan and Gerona under the banner “No to MAT. Not here, not anywhere!”

The definitive route of the MAT has undergone modifications in line with the political powers of the local affected councils, and in general has passed through villages with few inhabitants. In the municipality of Fellines opposition to the project has been strong. Among some of the reasons for resistance are the violation of the minimum distances of the MAT to nearby housing which, according to regulations, should represent distances exceeding 500 metres to urban centres and 100 metres from houses. However, in the case of the MAT, it quite clearly passes by at intervals of just 50 metres from houses. Shoddy practices related to property expropriations and the disproportionate role of the police in its dealings with the population of the municipality must also be noted.

These impacts, the bad practices and the opacity have all provoked a range of resistance and disobedience activities throughout the territory, and up to now 40 individuals have been prosecuted for such actions. Despite this, not a single media outlet has reported on the conflict oor given opposing voices an opportunity to put across their message. However, the social movement opposing the project remains active and is demanding a new culture of energy, one which respects the land and that involves the genuine power to decide: a more decentralised and respectful model for people and the environment, one which ten years of MAT makes impossible.

Other energy black spots on Catalan territory

03 bolet radiactiuThe Toxic Tour also visited other black spots throughout the land that are the consequences of an obsolete energy model and its role in relation to other models: the model of production and consumption with emphasis on the role of leisure, city planning and transport – all of which generate a strong dependence on fossil fuels. Moreover, at the Spanish state level, there is a high consumption of electricity, but it should be noted that a high portion of this comes from gas plants (in which carbon is burned) and nuclear energy plants.

One of the stops on the tour visualised this dependence on fossil fuel energy and showed how different companies are passing through the extractive barrier. Fracking, the technique of unconventional gas extraction, currently threatens Europe and the Girona municipality of Riudaura testifies to this. In December 2013, the village learned that the Generalitat had conceded research permits to the company Teredo Oil. The local administration was never informed about these permits via formal channels, but the local inhabitants of the village quickly organised a platform and began to work with various commissions.

The negative effects of hydraulic fracking (contamination of the water table, acoustic and atmospheric contamination, seismic dangers, degradation of the countryside and the altering of the local economy, to name a few) are now well recognised by the people of the zone who have trained themselves on such issues through the platform “Aturem el fracking”/”Stop Fracking”. Currently, even though the company Teredo Oil has yet to begin its activity (in Catalonia fracking has been indirectly banned through the modification of an urban law), the public platform has not dropped its guard. Most recently, the Popular Party government has made public its desire to stand in front of a constitutional tribunal to overturn the ban on this gas extraction technique.

In a similar, but at the time undetected, movement, last January 17th the Official Spanish Bulletin announced the request of prospecting permits to find mineral oils along the Catalan Coast. These studies threaten marine ecosystems, particularly cetacean populations. In this field, acoustic damage is well-known to affect fish, cephalopods, cetaceans and coral. It should be noted that the study area is extensive and affects areas of high ecological value and migratory fauna paths. Likewise, the area has tourism and fishing as its main economic sectors, and sea prospecting, as well as the possible extraction of fuels in the area, could seriously impact these sectors.

Peak oil gets closer every day and technologies such as fracking or sea prospecting do not provide an answer to this situation. In this context a change in the energy system towards the reduction of consumption and the use of clean and renewable energies is now more needed than ever.

Returning to nuclear energy mentioned previously, currently Catalonia’s dependence stands at 50% whereas renewable energy only represents 20%, of which 10% comes from hydro-electric sources. Nuclear power stations have a low rate of profitability, which is situated at around 35%, and when taking account of losses during transport (5-15%) this percentage decreases further.IMG_0277b

In July 1990, following a fire in one of its two turbo-generators that took place in October 1989, the Vandellòs Nuclear Power Plant (Vandellòs I) in Catalonia was shut down. The power station had a 508 MWe carbon dioxide gas cooled reactor. A second 1087 MWe unit – Vandellòs II – is owned by Endesa (72%) and Iberdrola (28%).

In spite of these concerns over economic viability and safety, the state wishes to extend the life of existing nuclear power plants by a further 60 years. Catalonia’s nuclear plants were paid for with public money which even today is being paid for by citizens through electricity bills, and by which the company Endesa (now part of the Italian company Enel) is profiting.

The leisure model and its logic of abuse of the sun and of energy resources was seen in the Toxic Tour’s visit to the proposed site of the Barcelona World project in Salou, Tarragona. The same has already been seen before with Eurovegas – the promoters of the project do not have any link to the local population, in whose backyard they wish to install their hotels and casinos. It does not matter to the company how many jobs they destroy or that the few new posts that they create are precarious at best, nor are the environmental impacts or the immense resources needed to build the project and then maintain it after of concern to the company.

It is clear what is important – economic interests. But only certain economic interests, namely those of the giant multi-national corporations.

The relationship between energy and the global food system was made clear during the visit to Osona, a corner of Catalonia in which purins (consisting of liquid manure).have become a major problem. The purin plants are simple generators of electricity apart from fossil fuels that take advantage of the generation of heat to dry the purines. The plants were the response of the Generalitat to a punishment handed out by the European Commission for the contamination of our water tables with nitrates and the lack of effective measures.

Nevertheless, time has demonstrated that the purin plants are a scam and involve bad use of renewable materials. It has involved a €3 billion price tag in 15 years for the Spanish state, with the result that the majority have shut down due to running out of material. The plants were also a scam as they failed to meet their original objective to adequately manage the final residue. The problem of accessing the purins has its origins in intensive farming in a relatively small zone. The growth and fattening up of the pigs has changed from being a rural activity to an industrial one currently controlled by a few large companies. The import of raw materials and the export of meat have made the sector unsustainable, and runs counter to the concept of food sovereignty.

Conclusions and challenges

The Toxic Tour also served to increase awareness of alternative, green energies such as those being generated by the cooperative Som Energia which operates a biogas plant in Torregrossa.

IMG_5264In two years, Som Energia has gathered 16,100 members which commercialise 100% renewable energy, in part produced at its own facility (8% of the total green energy that it sells). Sant Celoni is the first village to have a green cooperative that administers clean energy to eight social housing projects. The biogas plant at Torregrossa has been completely financed by its members (€3.6 million) and treats 18,500 m3 of manure and 8300 m3 of organic residue per year.

The experience of the Toxic Tour is similar to the accumulated experience of the affected villages across the territory of Catalonia, making us think that these are not isolated cases. We encounter political and economic mechanisms (eg, abusive contracts, financial mechanisms, the fossil fuel model itself) that chain public money to the financial markets and companies – remote from the public good.

The repetition of this logic at each stop of the tour demonstrated to the tour participants the unsustainability and the injustice that our current energy model fosters.

It is because of this that the Network for Energy Sovereignty will continue its fight to reclaim the right to decide on energy issues.

 

[1]             Relationships already recognised by the Spanish Geological & Mining Institute and by the National Geographic Institute, also by geologists such as Josep Giner and Miguel de las Doblas. At the time, prior to the earthquakes, the risk was communicated to the state and European authorities by the Platform of the Sénia – offering studies in this respect.

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