local energy and workers’ control

by Brian Rylance

Bio-diesel has presented an unusual opportunity over recent years as various local workers coops have taken a relatively simple technology to make a mostly carbon neutral diesel from local used cooking oil. Food and energy are the most important goods to any community and they are subject both to fluctuations in the global economy and fickle state control. The opportunity to take local worker control of any portion of the energy they consume, however little and however briefly, is important on a scale beyond the actual goods they produce as it trains co-operators in the knowledge of fuel making and fuel makers in the practicalities of cooperating.  Such local control has allowed genuinely ethical decisions to be taken for the community benefit rather than for purely economic reasons; all the coops associated with the Goodfuels Coop have freely chosen to use only waste cooking oil for feedstock rather than any unused food oils including dubious soy or environmentally damaging palm. Driven by profit alone it would have been far better for the balance sheets to import large amounts of palm oil from plantations that have been grown on slashed and burned rainforests.

Capitalist fickleness has inevitably led to massive pressure on the existing coops with the story over the last half of 2008 being particularly dramatic. Having suffered under low margins of operating profit, for over 5 years in some of these coops, the price of crude oil suddenly rose dramatically. This initially allowed biodiesel to remain cheaper than mineral diesel but still rise, promising to secure much needed funds. However this price rise attracted the inevitable middle men. Having no experience in this market they sniffed a possible profit and started to speculate in used cooking oil. The price of the waste oil rose even faster than that of crude oil as these speculators broke into established chains of supply. Buying cheap and selling dear they inflated the feedstock price to the point where many conventional biodiesel businesses, small and large, folded because there was no longer any profit incentive for the manufacturer at the same time that the price of crude hit all time highs!

Then the price of oil collapsed along with the onset of a global recession. As the profit incentive sank the speculators left the sinking ship but only slowly, hanging onto higher than market prices in many cases, in an attempt to maximise the capital they could extract out of the biodiesel industry. This hiatus drove even more businesses (but not the coops) into receivership. When the dust had settled things had not improved for the coops who had survived the infestation of speculators for now the chains of supply had been broken, irreparably in many cases. Waste cooking oil collections had become more centralised and local customers had been wooed back to mineral diesel because the price was no longer very different. The only reason that the coops continue is that they are not primarily driven by the purely by the profit motive, but by the fact that their labours are worthwhile.

Yet market fluctuations are not the only problem facing these fuel coops in the future as government intervention in this climate friendly industry would only be expected. At the end of 2008 the tax on Biodiesel from any feedstock was 20p per litre less than mineral diesel but a new initiative was being trialled to replace this. In future big retailers of diesel were to either sell 5% of their fuel as biodiesel or buy certificates from biodiesel producers to that amount. Of course there were many problems in the first year but what is absolutely clear is the big retailers were not interested in trading small amounts. So at the end of 2008 palm oil from land grown on burnt Indonesian rainforest could be exported to the US and be made into millions of litres of biodiesel and then re-exported to the UK and be subsidised there by the sales of certificates to the paltry sum of 6p per litre. 6p per litre to subsidise a fuel that, litre for litre, will contribute more to climate change than mineral diesel! Yet not one penny from this scheme will go to locally controlled coops producing biodiesel in an ethical and environmental way! Even the best scenario will differentiate biodiesel from waste rather than virgin oils, but it will still only be there for the massive corporations to indulge in.

In the long run the fickleness of the market and the favouritism central government shows to large corporations may or may not run these coops out of the biodiesel business but that is no reason to dismiss them. Workers actively running their own affairs whilst holding their industrial capital in trust cannot be outdone merely by reading books and theorising. The only way to learn how to actually provide some of a community’s essential needs in a socially and environmentally sustainable way is to go ahead and do it. Consumer Coops cannot do this as they are not controlled by the workers, leading to top down impositions. Many workers coops choose to engage in superfluous consumer production for one particular section of society, learning the lessons of cooperation, but acting outside the main community. Ultimately we need to trial these coops, we need to learn the skills to work together effectively and learn the skills necessary to manufacture what the community needs.

So will these coops take down the oil corporations? Even if they were capable commercially (which they clearly aren’t) and they had the feedstock it seems the government would protect the corporations. Are the biodiesel coop members communists, syndicalists, greens or something different altogether? They all have their own reasons for engaging in these coops and describe themselves in far more varied terms than these and I know only a few of the individuals, but their actions shout far louder than any labels! Are all these coops the same? No, they all have local variations according to their own locality, circumstances and the members’ preferences. Is this the way forward? It can only be part of it; education, political action, union action, direct action and even theorising all must be used to maintain pressure for a wider social justice. It is practical action, not dry text, which gives us our schooling and allows us to help shape both the present and the future. Maybe in working together we can learn to stand together, rather than standing apart divided in theory alone.