Green is the Colour of Money

Robert Palgrave of BioFuelWatch explores how a green entrepreneur proved that it’s who you know and what you say, not what you do, that counts when green money is at stake.   

Blue NG is the creation of Andrew Mercer, an ex-software industry entrepreneur. Around 2007, Mercer persuaded National Grid to form Blue NG as a joint venture with his own company, 2OC. Blue NG's 'mission' was to build renewable electricity power stations across the UK, located on gasworks sites owned by National Grid. 2OC is also a renewable energy company that claims to be able to make use of the energy lost when natural gas piped from North Sea is reduced in pressure before it is supplied to homes and businesses.

rhetoric Blue NG combined the 2OC ‘geo-pressure’ idea with burning biofuels in diesel engines to make what they claimed would be the world’s most efficient renewable electricity system. Press stories hyped up the potential. Blue NG told The Times that it could build up to 1000 of these power stations around the UK, and the emissions saved would be the equivalent of making the entire NHS zero-carbon.

Another Andrew Mercer creation, a club for ‘entrepreneurs with conscience’ called Footdown, entertained very senior figures from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, The Climate Group and Jonathon Porritt at a soiree in Bath in April 2007, fronted by Midge Ure of BandAid fame. Details of the discussions they had are not public but it is almost certain that the Blue NG renewable electricity scheme was a key topic for the evening.

In 2008, Blue NG lobbied government and the large environmental NGOs to support its so-called renewable energy concept and was successful in persuading officials and politicians that it should be eligible for generous subsidies under the Renewable Obligation scheme.

Then came the planning applications; first in Beckton in the London Borough of Newham. Councillors there, and members at the higher authority – London Thames Gateway Development Corporation – granted planning permission in the face of minor levels of objections about biofuel usage from dedicated agrofuel campaigners. Blue NG produced approving letters from John Sauven at Greenpeace, and from Jonathon Porritt, saying that geo-pressure was an innovative response to climate change and the use of biofuels to generate electricity in efficient engines was also welcomed. Another letter from Friends of the Earth was equivocal on the use of biofuels but was quoted selectively by Blue NG throughout the planning application. It was published on the Blue NG website along with the other endorsements from ‘names’ in the environmental movement. Councillors were more impressed by these high-level endorsements from ‘names’ than by reasoned and evidence-based objection from campaigners who had researched the issue properly.

Blue NG’s second planning application in Southall was opposed more effectively and was eventually refused, after an appeal, because of the air pollution it would produce. Following a lot of pressure from agrofuels campaigners, Greenpeace declined to support this second application but did not oppose it either. Friends of the Earth told Blue NG to stop using the earlier endorsement.

The key issue for agrofuels campaigners is the use of biofuels on an industrial scale.

Blue NG had initially said it would use a range of different biofuels in its power stations, including palm oil, which, at the time, was just beginning to be recognised outside the environmental movement as a cause of deforestation and habitat destruction in south-east Asia and South America.

After agrofuels campaigners challenged the sense of a climate change solution that would burn palm oil and cause deforestation, Blue NG announced that it would be working to a ‘sustainable fuel sourcing policy’ to be developed with help from Greenpeace. The fuel sourcing policy evolved and ended up with the implausible promise that all fuel would be UK-grown rapeseed oil obtained from farms within 50 miles of each power station, and that contracts had already been signed with farmers. Blue NG even claimed that it was willing to accept ‘green handcuffs’ as conditions attached to planning permission that would allow local councils to shut them down if they used the wrong fuel - a power that councils do not have.

The second Entrepreneurs with Conscience meeting at The Royal Society in March 2009, titled 'Green is the Colour of Money', saw Blue NG again entertain Greenpeace and Jonathon Porritt, joined this time by Vince Cable MP, who was canvassed, on leaving the event, by agrofuels campaigners and told them he had no idea Blue NG was involved in burning biofuels. The account of the meeting suggests he was present throughout and even gave an impromptu speech. It’s hard to believe that biofuels were not mentioned.

Nearly three years on from submitting its planning application for Beckton, Blue NG has not produced a single unit of ‘renewable energy’. It has not even started building work at Beckton and has had to dissolve the joint venture with National Grid because of EU rules on separation of functions in the electricity market. At least Blue NG has not burned a drop of biofuel, nor has 2OC prospered. In the six years since then, it has also failed to build a single ‘geo-pressure’ system, although last year it managed to convince aUS business school that it was worthy of inclusion in a list of green businesses to admire.

When it comes to making green money, it seems the old methods are still favoured: wine and dine a few top people with influence to secure public subsidies and planning permission; make non-binding promises about how you will operate; and trump well-intentioned, informed criticism from ‘campaigners with conscience’ with endorsements from green brand names.