Sunday, 16 August 2009

Coal protesters create bonanza for security firms

Danny Fortson
A group of men was caught trying to break in at Drax power station in Yorkshire last month. Running across open fields toward the perimeter fence in the middle of the night, they were picked up by infrared cameras and motion sensors long before they got near the boilers and other heavy machinery.
The would-be attackers were not prosecuted — they were Drax staff who had volunteered to stage a break-in to test elaborate new security at the plant, western Europe’s largest coal-fired power station.
The security shake-up was ordered after hundreds of environmental protesters descended on the site, near Selby, in August 2006. More than 500 police were called in to contain the “climate camp” they set up and 39 people were arrested after trying to enter the power station and shut it down.
“2006 was the watershed,” said Peter Emery, production director at Drax. “We had to take a serious look at security because of the strong likelihood that we would be targeted again.”
As a result, a new interior perimeter fence was erected and CCTV cameras and motion sensors were installed. Emery, an engineer by training, regularly trades “intelligence” with the police about possible threats.
It wasn’t always like this. Just a few years ago power station security, except at nuclear sites, amounted to a chain link fence and, as Emery put it, “a couple of fat blokes in a kiosk”.
In the past few years, climate change has moved from a fringe cause to a hot topic for lawmakers and the public around the world. A by-product of that shift is that campaigners who for decades had largely ignored the fossil-fuel electricity industry, the biggest source of pollution in the world, have made it a primary target.
Power companies have been forced to pump tens of millions of pounds into new high-tech security to keep the protesters out and the plants running.
David Porter, chief executive of the Association of Electricity Producers, said: “Not long ago, people protested against pit closures and wanted to keep coal-fired power stations going. Now they march on coal-fired power stations and try to shut them down.”
It is a trend that is being replicated around the world. In the next two months big protests are planned at power stations in Italy, Australia and America. In June, protesters from Greenpeace attempted to stop a ship on the Humber carrying a cargo of coal for Eon’s power station at Kingsnorth, Kent.
Barrie Millett, head of business resilience at Eon, said the company had spent “several million pounds” on upgrading security at its sites in the past few years.
“It’s a different world now,” he said. “We have to ensure the safety not just of our staff, but of the protesters as well. These are big, dangerous industrial sites.”
Climate campaigners often resort to extreme tactics, such as chaining themselves to coal elevators or other vital equipment, to bring plants to a halt. Their actions can have unintended consequences. Shutting down a big plant would probably mean that even dirtier oil-fired stations, which lie dormant much of the time, would have to be put to use to take up the slack.
Camp for Climate Action is part of the small but uncompromising minority of protesters prepared to use illegal means. It organised the climate camp at Kingsnorth last year, during which there were attempts to invade the plant. It wants all fossil-fuel power stations to be closed, and is unapologetic about the extra security costs for power firms.
David Lewis of Camp for Climate Action said: “These companies are only interested in profits and producing energy, so it is good we are costing them money. If it is more expensive, maybe they will be less likely to invest in them. We won’t try to shut down renewables.”
Industry executives say they do not want to stop climate campaigners mounting protests at their sites, provided they are safe. “We share the same objectives of reducing emissions and we are working within the system to do that,” said Emery.
“Some people are very impatient for that change and the way they go about it is not constructive.”
Camp for Climate Action is planning the Great Climate Swoop, a mass protest in October at Eon’s power station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar, Nottinghamshire, or at Drax. An online poll is being held to choose. Lewis said: “We will let the people decide which they want to see shut down.”