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Environmental Activists prevent construction of coal-fired power plant in Kingsnorth, England, 2007-2010
In December of 2006, Eon, an energy company, submitted an application to the Medway council in Kent, England to build coal-fired generating units, the first to be built in England since 1974. The plant would emit more carbon dioxide than the world’s thirty lowest emitting countries combined. Within a few months, two other companies were proposing similar projects, with even more to follow. Eon planned to implement Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), as per the government’s request. With CCS, the coal plant separates out the carbon dioxide and stores it under the sea, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. However, CCS is very expensive and the technology was not fully developed at the time—indeed, no commercially operating plants had CCS, nor did it seem like they could for several decades. Opposition organizations maintained that the new plant would not actually implement this technology, and that it would instead be just as destructive as previous coal plants.
Greenpeace, an environmental advocacy group, immediately responded in opposition to the project and the reemergence of coal as fuel in general across England, demanding efficient and renewable energy, particularly decentralized energy. In late spring and summer of 2007, 13,000 Greenpeace supporters wrote to the planning officer at Medway Council asking him to deny the application. Greenpeace delivered the letters in September, along with a giant transparent “postcard” filled with coal.
On October 8, 2007, between 26 and 60 Greenpeace volunteers split into teams and took over the existing coal plant in Kingsnorth, where the new plant would be built, around 5:00 am. One team stopped the conveyer belts transporting coal into the plant and then chained themselves to the machines and conveyer belts so that the company could not restart them. This meant that once the plant used up the coal in its boilers, it would stop emitting energy—it usually emitted 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide daily. Another team, later named the “Kingsnorth Six” made a nine hour climb up the 200-meter tall chimney, planning to hold it for several days in order to remove it from the National Grid and to paint a message in 10-meter high letters on the outside of the chimney telling Prime Minister Gordon Brown not to approve Eon’s proposal; the specific words were to be “Gordon Bin It.” Over the course of that day, police began arresting those chained to the machinery, arresting most of them by the end of the day. Meanwhile, the other six spent the night on the top of the coal stack and descended the next day. Police arrested them on their arrival on the ground, but released all the protestors after no more than one night in jail.
In December of 2007, Dr. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Brown urging him not to approve the plant. In a later interview, he said that not only should England not approve any new coal-fired plants, it must began to destroy the ones already operating. Dr. Hansen emphasized that Brown’s decision had great implications for the future of the planet, and that the world’s more polluting nations had to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Dr. Hansen also spoke on British radio a few weeks later, delivering a similarly brutal attack to the coal proposition. This statement on behalf of Greenpeace’s cause came approximately a year after former United States Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Al Gore declared that climate change was at such a crisis point that activists should be standing in rings around bulldozers to prevent the construction of new coal plants. Although he did not explicitly endorse the Greenpeace activists, the organization nevertheless took his statement as a powerful message in support of their cause and tactics. In February of 2008, England’s Prince Charles also came out against the interests of coal, urging the government to deny Eon’s request.
In November of 2007, Medway Council postponed the decision on Eon’s proposal for a later date, and then on January 2, 2008, approved the proposal, leaving the final decision up to Prime Minister Brown and Energy Secretary John Hutton. In January of 2008, Eon wrote to UK officials saying that CCS would not work, and requesting permission to build a conventional plant instead. The Department of Business granted their request. In response, Greenpeace lawyers wrote to energy minister John Hutton asking for a public inquiry on the matter, and saying that the government would be unable to review the application impartially.
On February 6, Greenpeace activists blocked four of the five entrances to the annual coal conference at Lord’s cricket grounds. They set up two-meter high fences, and then chained themselves to them, so that the attendees of the conference could not enter.
On April 1, Greenpeace held “Fossil Fool’s Day” actions. The London World Development Movement groups organized what they called a “laugh-in” outside Minister of Business John Hutton’s place of work. Another ally organization held a protest in Parliament Square, where they set up a coal-fired power station and wore Gordon Brown masks and jester hats. They eventually burned a fake climate change bill.
In July, Eon sponsored a Guardian Climate Change Summit in London. Activists, wishing to make clear the hypocrisy of sponsoring a climate change event while building a new coal-fired station, protested the action in white jumpsuits, calling themselves greenwash guerillas. They held banners and handed out leaflets, and danced to a popular song called “Toxic,” to demonstrate what they saw to be the toxic nature of Eon’s policies. Later that month, activists from ally organization Stop Climate Chaos planted flags at Kingsnorth to protest the proposed new coal plant. This action occurred just one day after Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee suggested that the government introduce stricter emission standards and forbid operation of coal-fired plants to continue unabated.
In August, Greenpeace held its climate camp. On August 1, the Climate Camp Caravan began a march from Heathrow Airport in London, a site of previous Greenpeace activism, to Kingsnorth. The camp itself, running from August 4-11, featured workshops and discussions on building a strong climate activism movement, with a focus on impeding the coal rush. These workshops took place in tents the activists had set up near the Kingsnorth plant. Climate campers carried out other actions around the country, focusing on other climate issues, during the first part of August. Those speaking on behalf of the camp later claimed it as a victory, although Eon claimed that the protestors had failed to disrupt any activity. Police occasionally raided the camp and made some arrests, and also had a garrison with horses, dogs, and helicopters outside the camp to search everyone coming through. Police injured a few protestors in an attempt to deny them entry.
The Kingsnorth Six trial started in the beginning of September. On the third day of the trial, NASA’s Dr. Hansen gave evidence for the defense, explaining the great damage to property, lives, and the environment that climate change was to cause. The trial featured other expert testimony, such as that of Greenland Inuit Aqqaluk Lynge, explaining the grave dangers climate change posed, and the necessity of cutting back carbon dioxide emissions before the situation worsened. Such testimony was critical for the defense, which argued that the damage the Kingsnorth Six caused was necessary to prevent the greater damage climate change, and particularly the emissions from the proposed Eon plant, would cause. The jury ultimately found the activists not guilty, due to the immediate need to prevent such damage. This verdict was a very important precedent, as it was the first time the “lawful excuse” defense excused climate activism.
In October, many climate campers travelled to Eon headquarters in Germany to partake in a symbolic action where protestors stood outside raising their middle fingers. That same month, a ship called the Rainbow Warrior came to England to help the campaigners in the fight against Eon. On the 27th, they sailed to the Kingsnorth station, where directors of various organizations joined them to deliver a declaration to Eon staff at the station. The organizations were mixed in purpose—many were part of the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, but others were less explicitly environmental, such as Oxfam and the Women’s Institute. Together, the organizations had a combined total of over 4 million members, and they emphasized the strength of their numbers in their declaration. The Rainbow Warrior, along with 8 other boats, sailed up to the power station with flags of the thirty lowest carbon dioxide producing countries. Although police prevented them from entering the plant, they stood on the jetty with their flags and read the expert evidence about the costs of climate change from the Kingsnorth Six trial. Six activists also occupied a small concrete island that Eon owned and projected images of climate change and the message “Gordon Bin It” onto the smokestack.
In December, Lord Turner’s committee on Climate Change recommended that, over the course of 15 years, the government close all coal stations without CCS. At the same time, Greenpeace started a “Google Bomb,” calling on anyone with a blog or website to put the link to an anti-coal website along with the word “Eon,” so that, eventually, anyone google-searching “Eon” would find the first website to be the anti-coal one. The website quickly rose in position on the google queue.
In June of 2009, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband created a new coal consultation with three proposals: to mandate CCS in any new plants; to mandate CCS retrofit; and to find alternatives to CCS if it did not become viable by 2020. On June 21, three women swam in the Medway River to block a coal freighter to prevent it from docking at Kingsnorth. Four other campaigners climbed aboard the ship, climbed the foremast, and demanded that the ship turn around. They came down the next day after receiving an injunction. In early July, activists formed a human chain outside the Kingsnorth plant holding yellow sashes saying “Climate Change Kills.”
In October, Eon announced that they would postpone the project for a few years due to the poor financial climate. One year later, in October of 2010, they officially withdrew from the government’s competition for funding, leaving just one company left in the competition and almost guaranteeing that Eon would not build the Kingsnorth plant.