Saturday, January 15, 2022

The real scandal of Baglan Energy Park

As the BBC report that Baglan Energy Park, where 1,600 people are employed, faces months without electricity, with "potentially catastrophic consequences, it is worth reflecting on the controversial way the project got approval in the first place. The full story is set out in Rhodri Morgan's autobiography:

What I was most sceptical of was the Baglan Energy Park. On my first day's tour around the project sections, the team responsible told me with confidence that the energy park would produce 6,000 new jobs. I asked them how they could be so sure - it sounded an awful high figure to me - but they said it was a middle estimate. I could rely on the 6,000 jobs figure.

Actually, it became clear that no jobs would arrive at the Baglan Energy Park, but I eventually found out why the estimate was so unrealistically high. Helen Liddell, by then the UK's High Commissioner in Australia, told me the background story. In 1997, the incoming Blair Government had issued a moratorium on new gas-fired power stations. The American multi-national industrial behemoth GE had wanted to build their first ever H series combined cycle gas turbine power station at Baglan, on a site vacated by BP. It had been part of BP's exit strategy from South Wales to secure GE's brand new and revolutionary design of power station on the former BP Baglan site. Then along came the moratorium.

US President Bill Clinton received a phone call from 'Neutron' Jack Welch, the legendary boss of GE, asking for his help in getting around the moratorium. Clinton rang his good friend Tony Blair, and asked (or maybe told) the PM to lift the moratorium for GE. That's how things are done in the US, I suppose. I could imagine Clinton smooth-talking Tony Blair over this - 'For God's sake, Tony, lift the moratorium for this power station, I've got Jack Welch on my back!' Anyway, GE got their permit to build the power station, but the exemption case from the moratorium had to be very special. Electricity from the power station could be supplied over the fence directly, and without paying a grid charge, into energy-intensive industries which could all go on the empty Baglan Bay site (now renamed the Baglan Energy Park). Hence the need for the 6,000 jobs estimate.

Before the power station actually opened, I asked to visit the project site (I was First Minister by this point). I was curious about why the US President had phoned the British PM about it - had to be on a par with a moon shot, didn't it? Bill Cooney, GE's site director, took me around - a lot guys in overalls with spanners sticking out of every pocket, trying to tweak the turbine blades to get them to run in perfect harmony. With the tour over, I walked back with Cooney to the car park past a row of Portakabins stacked four-high - he said that was where all the design engineers worked. I replied to say that I ought to go in there, as the tour wouldn't really be complete without meeting his engineering team.

Cooney said, 'Very sorry, sir, you can't go in there. You don't have an American passport!' 'Hang on a minute', I riposted, 'we are in Port Talbot, in Wales!' 'I'm afraid you cannot go in there without breaching the US Export Control Act', Cooney replied, 'this is sensitive technology, only US citizens allowed in there.' I wasn't giving up. 'So you're telling me that since those Portakabins were put there, no non-US citizen has been in there?' 'Absolutely right,' he said, 'nobody ... oh, hang on a minute, nobody except the delivery boys from Domino's Pizza!' Now, I knew where the First Minister of Wales stood - somewhere beneath Domino's Pizza delivery boys.'

A good example of how the wheels of government are oiled.

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