By Professor James Blyth
The Fishing Saga
The story of the UK's fishing rights scarcely needs re-telling, but it is well worth remembering.
They are part of the internationally agreed economic resources of the UK, and are located primarily within the North Sea and parts of the Atlantic Ocean. They fall within the UK's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), established in March 2014 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
This zone, which also includes the production of energy from wind and waves, as well as the more familiar economic sovereignty over fishing and other marine resources, extends up to 200 nautical miles from the shore. It is distinct from the UK's territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles.
When the UK began its long drawn out process of applying to join what was then the EEC, the six countries of the bloc drew up Council Regulation 2141/70, which would grant member states equal access to the lucrative internationally agreed territorial fishing rights of the UK, Denmark, Norway and Ireland, all of whom were then proposing to become members.
These combined resources would be four times larger than those of the six existing EEC states. On these grounds alone, Norway decided not to join, but the UK pressed ahead; devastation followed in short order for the vast majority of long-established traditional fishing communities around the UK.
The effect on marine ecology was, and still is, equally disastrous. The policies of the EEC, as it developed into the EU, encouraged and subsidised both over-capacity and over-fishing, leading to lasting environmental damage. Many species have been driven to the brink of extinction, and will take many years to recover even under more enlightened fisheries management policies.
The Vaccine Story
More serious, perhaps, is the now transparent folly of the EU's centralised approach to the Covid pandemic and the need for fast and efficient production of vaccines. The prevention of the spread of contagious diseases is, by very definition, a public good. The UK grasped this nettle, whilst the EU adopted an attitude of seeking to enforce its drive towards ever greater centralisation of power and control, and the preservation at all costs of the EU project – even if the vaccines might be delayed.
Saving the Planet with Wind
Power and control are also at the heart of the EU's approach to renewable energy. Climate change concerns do not necessarily lead to a centralisation of power and control – the technical arguments actually favour some decentralisation of energy generation – but that is nevertheless the EU's plan. It aims to build a European super-grid, controlled from a nerve centre that would not be in the UK.
This scheme goes by the name of the single European market in energy. It calls for interconnector cables between countries, to allow a free flow of energy in any direction to meet market needs at wholesale prices. Climate change concerns provide the justification to drive the agenda forward, as the new super-grid could ease the flow of renewable energy to countries where it is in short supply.
Offshore wind energy plays a key role in all of this, and the North Sea takes on a new importance. The relatively shallow depth of water allows for the use of large diameter wind turbines with solid foundations sitting on the sea bed, and high average wind speeds lead to good energy production – at least, when the wind blows. Deeper waters will require more expensive floating wind turbines.
For historical reasons, the main flow of electricity supply in the UK is from north to south. This is because the generating stations were first built near the coalfields, but as the surrounding industries declined, the growth in population took place in the south east – especially in and around London.
The changeover to renewable energy has intensified the problem of power transmission. Offshore wind energy will be produced out in the North Sea, but there is no transmission grid in place with enough capacity to bring all the power to London. Unless that happens, the UK will not be able to switch off its old fossil fuel powered generating stations and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
The UK was slow to establish its Exclusive Economic Zone. It waited until the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 created the power to establish an EEZ. This was finally defined by the Exclusive Economic Zone Order 2013, which came into force on 31 March 2014. Prior to this, the UK relied upon a variety of other international maritime agreements which had a broadly similar effect.
Establishment of the EEZ coincided with a major expansion of offshore wind energy. The Crown Estate issued new seabed leases in return for rental payments, which were passed to government as if they were general taxation. This source of public funding, paid in advance, could have been used to build the offshore infrastructure required to bring the flow of renewable green energy to London.
The first two rounds of new seabed leases were uneventful, but the much bigger projects of the third round presented a challenge. Fortunately, the problem was solved soon after the leases were issued.
A new western link would be built offshore down the western coast of the UK. This went ahead. Its partner, a new eastern link, also laid offshore from north to south, would connect up the North Sea wind farms off the east coast of England, and provide extra north to south capacity at the same time.
Studies showed very large cost savings from this approach, and by the summer of 2015, it looked as though the reduction of emissions called for by all the climate change scientists could now happen.
An island of coal, surrounded by fish?
Enter ENTSO. After the UK voted to leave the EU, panic set in. The EEZ was in place, confirming UK sovereignty over not only fishing rights, but also renewable energy generation in the North Sea.
ENTSO was established by the EU in 2009 to regulate energy markets – the same year that the UK issued its Round 3 seabed leases. If the UK went ahead with its offshore transmission plans, the EU would lose control of some of the renewable energy needed to meet its own climate change targets.
Within a very short space of time, Ofgem blocked the planned expansion of offshore transmission capacity, and the grid connections for the Round 3 offshore wind farm projects were shifted away from their natural access points on the main power lines to London. Instead, the energy produced would be left partly abandoned in the countryside until the super-grid was ready to gather it up.
The in-house software used by National Grid to model the UK transmission network was scrapped, and replaced with a computerised model of the EU internal market in electricity, based on the idea of a European super-grid. This would take time to build, and delay seems to have become the order of the day. Meanwhile, countryside communities could be relied upon to object to new wind farm infrastructure in their area, and could be criticised for a 'nimby' attitude towards climate change.
The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement
The recently agreed EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) is highly unusual. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to counter climate change is part of the preamble, and is 'of the essence'.
A failure to meet this target provides either side with grounds to complain of a fundamental breach of the agreement, and to invoke punitive measures. The TCA section on fish, and also the section on energy, share a termination date of 30th June 2026, at which point negotiations begin all over again.
Michel Barnier recently advised the French Senate that by this time, the UK would be dependent upon the EU for its energy supply, and that this would provide the bargaining position to challenge once more the UK's access to its fishing rights within the EEZ. Climate change provides the pretext, but delay of the UK's offshore wind energy development and transmission plans, until 30th June 2026, seems to be the EU's objective; perhaps, by then, the UK will be found to be in breach of the TCA.
National Grid, the privatised monopoly that allocates grid connections, and manages the programme of subsidies for wind farms on behalf of the government, is pushing hard for more interconnectors to continental Europe, whilst the industry regulator, Ofgem, aided by the civil servants of the many government departments involved with energy matters, seems to be doing all it can to delay the new offshore infrastructure that would bring the maximum amount of renewable wind energy to London.
The offshore wind industry, accustomed perhaps to being able to influence Brussels, now seems to be turning its attention to UK government departments. There are growing calls for National Grid to be broken up, so that firms based in the EU can be brought in to operate the UK's transmission grid, and operational control of the UK transmission network can potentially be shifted outside the UK.
Climate change is the pretext for all of this, but the energy section of the TCA was drafted by the UK civil service on behalf of the electricity supply industry and its manufacturers, perhaps with a direct input from Brussels, and seems to have been inserted into the agreement at their insistence.
Looking to the future
The UK is not yet dependent upon the EU – only 8% of the UK's electricity supply ebbs and flows across interconnectors. But if National Grid, ENTSO and Ofgem get their way, it may soon be only through interconnectors, joined up into a super-grid, and controlled from somewhere in continental Europe, that the UK will be able to receive clean energy from the latest developments in the North Sea, and so meet the climate change targets required by the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
Perhaps the aim of the EU negotiators is to work towards control of the flow of renewable energy from the North Sea into the UK. This could leave the UK unable to meet its climate change targets, and potentially in breach of the TCA, unless it gives way on fishing rights and other aspects of the agreement. If, instead, the UK becomes self-sufficient in clean energy, that leverage would be lost.
Since the TCA was agreed on 30th December 2020, some EU participants have been keen to make life as difficult as possible for the UK, and there seems to be little reason to expect this to change.
If the UK is serious about reaching its climate change commitments, and supplying its homes and businesses with clean energy at a fair price, then it needs to keep control of its energy supply.
Whether it's fish, vaccines, or wind, careful vigilance has never been so important.
by Professor James Blyth (1839-1906), the Scottish engineer who first used a wind turbine to make electricity.
Gap-filler generating stations are needed anyway to cover the periods when the wind doesn't blow. It is simply not possible to build big enough batteries to bridge the gap, and modern gas-fired electricity generating stations, easily started and stopped, have been designed to do this job. Emission levels from these new designs are very low.
"This island is made mainly of coal and surrounded by fish. Only an organising genius could produce a shortage of coal and fish at the same time." – Nye Bevan MP, Blackpool, 25th May 1945.
ENTSO-E is the European Network of Transmission System Operators for electricity. It consists of about forty electricity transmission system operators (TSOs) from 35 different European countries, some of which are not currently EU member states. National Grid plc continues to play an active role in the activities of ENTSO-E.