When ‘power games’ really do involve ‘power’…

In a nutshell: if this strategy is successful, we would be driven all the way back the same ‘Dark Ages’ that we all thought – however erroneously – we had left behind in distant 1987

I’ve always found it vaguely appropriate, that the word ‘power’ is used interchangeably to describe both ‘political authority’, and also ‘electrical  energy’.

For let’s face it: those two things do have a lot in common. Just consider, for instance, how many of Malta’s past elections have been dominated (or at the very least, characterized) by controversies specifically surrounding ‘power generation’.

It might seem like a long time ago; but those old enough to remember the 1992 election, will also recall the long months of ‘environmental’ protests that had preceded it: led by Opposition leader Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, and targeting the (then under construction) ‘new’ power station in Delimara.

Now: it is obviously far too late to be digging up all those arguments once more… even if, in a roundabout kind of way, they still feel vaguely relevant. One way of looking at it, I suppose, is that the party which (at the time) represented the more realistic, down-to-earth and ‘modern’ approach to the energy question, was also the one which won that election by a landslide…

And OK: there were other all sorts of other reasons to account for the 1992 result. At the risk of a gross over-simplification: after the experience of 16 long years under Labour – the last three of which under Mifsud Bonnici himself, as Prime Minister – a large majority was simply reluctant to revert back to the ‘old regime’ so soon. (Sound familiar? It should…)

Nonetheless, it would be facile to deny that the actual issue itself – i.e., the nuts and bolts of how we actually generate (or import) electrical energy – did indeed make a difference to the final outcome.

For one thing: electricity generation WAS very much an electoral issue, back then. If some people still allude to the 1980s as ‘The Dark Ages’ … they are not just referring to all the political violence/instability that so many of us still associate with that decade (you know: Tal-Barrani, Raymond Caruana, and all that.)

No, it was also down to all the constant, intermittent power-cuts we had to contend with so often: largely the result of an archaic (even by the standards of the time) power station in Marsa, that simply couldn’t cope with the growing energy demands of a rapidly industrializing country…

There was no real question, then, that Malta really did need to overhaul its energy-generating infrastructure; and while we can argue endlessly over the pros and cons of Eddie Fenech Adami’s chosen strategy – i.e., to build a new, oil-fired power station in Delimara – the fact remains that most people, at the time, were a good deal more concerned by another issue altogether.

‘Will the light actually come on, the next time I press the switch?’

That, ultimately, was the question uppermost on people’s minds; and looking at it from their perspective, it is no surprise that the Maltese voting public evidently felt much safer, voting for the party that actually replied ‘Yes’ to it (and which also came out with a detailed proposal that explained exactly how all that energy would be produced, too…)

Which is not to say that Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici elicited no sympathy whatsoever, in his early-1990s crusade to ‘save Delimara from environmental ruin’. But… let’s just say that there were also certain practicalities to be considered first; and when it came down to a stark choice between, on the one hand, an ‘environmentally friendly’ (but hopelessly impractical) approach; and on the other, a strategy which – while far from ideal – did, at least, offer practical solutions to the country’s very real energy problems…

… it was a no-brainer, really.

Now, I’ll admit that historical analogies are tricky things, even at the best of times… but it is hard not to point out certain parallels with later elections: especially those of 2013 and 2017, in which ‘power generation’ also came to play a dominant role; and where, once again, the party seeming to offer the more ‘convincing’ answers, also went on to win both elections with increasing majorities.

Having said this, the same caveats apply. How much, at the end of the day, did the Electrogas proposal really contribute to Joseph Muscat’s electoral successes, in 2013 and 2017? Truth be told, probably very little… and even then: that ‘little’ was achieved much more by the promise of ‘cheaper’ electricity, than by the actual technology being proposed to generate it.

For by this time, the fundamental question on most people’s minds had also changed. It was no longer: ‘Will the light actually come on?’… but rather: ‘How much will it cost me, to press that switch?’

So regardless how much of Labour’s energy vision has been irremediably tainted ever since; and no matter how many corruption scandals we have since gotten to know about… back in 2013, the electorate was still faced with a stark choice between a party promising to overhaul Malta’s energy infrastructure, so as to both lower CO2 emissions, and – more importantly – electricity prices…

… and another party which opposed the same energy plan, on all sorts of (plausible and implausible) grounds; but which, quite frankly, wasn’t really proposing anything very convincing of its own.

In any case: the upshot is that, for better or worse, the same Electrogas contract eventually carried the day – for much the same reason as Eddie’s energy vision had earlier trumped Karmenu’s – and as a result, Malta now generates its power by burning natural gas… which still has to be imported from overseas; hence, the entire strategy’s reliance on a future gas pipeline to Sicily (for which funds have already been allocated by the EU).

Now: is that situation ‘ideal’? Erm… no, far from it. For even before we get to all the corruption scandals… it is now evident that the same approach that felt so ‘modern’, six or seven years ago, has already been overtaken by certain… let’s call them, ‘developments’.

One is that the entire world – including, naturally, Malta – is currently bracing itself for an explosion in the international price of natural gas (for geopolitical reasons that are far too complex to go into here).

Another is that, on a Euro-political level, the European Commission is now insisting on yet another transition – this time, from natural gas to hydrogen – which also means that our entire national energy infrastructure (which we’ve only just overhauled, at considerable cost) now needs a lot more investment to cater for another technological revolution in the near future.

Not to stress too fine a point, but… this is the backdrop against which Malta’s entire energy-generating infrastructure is now under full-frontal attack: not merely from the geo-political realities I have just described… but also, on the basis of corruption.

In a nutshell, the core argument now appears to be that the Electrogas contract should be ‘rescinded’ altogether… and also, that the EU should (for the same reason) renege on its existing commitment to provide €200 million in funding for the €400m gas pipeline.

And, well… this is where the 1992 analogy becomes all the more poignant.

Then as now (even if, ironically, the Opposition has changed from Labour to PN in the meantime), the arguments against Malta’s energy strategy are all still essentially ‘ideological’ – as opposed to ‘pragmatic’ – in nature.

In the 1990s, they were fuelled by (real or contrived) ‘environmental’ concerns; today, they are the result of an aversion to corruption and maladministration.

Both are, of course, entirely understandable – praiseworthy, even – considerations; but… well, do I even need to continue? The problem is that neither approach actually answers that same all-important question, regarding whether – after all these ‘lofty ideals’ have faded far into the background – we will even be left with any form of power-generating capability … AT ALL.

For let’s face it: if Malta really does end up losing those €200 million in funding for the new pipeline… it would happen at a time when the government is already committed to ‘absorbing’ next year’s anticipated electricity price increases: to the tune (as specified by Finance Minister Clyde Caruana, in last month’s budget speech) of ‘1.8% of GDP’, or €196 million, which is just about half the money we would suddenly have to fork out for ourselves (and from where, I wonder?) to ensure that we even have the infrastructure in place, just to be able to import any natural gas.

To say that this would ‘mess up’ government’s plans to absorb the impending price-hikes, would be the understatement of the century. Under those circumstances, government would have no option whatsoever but to pass on those expenses directly to the consumer, in the form of sky-rocketing energy tariffs….

… but in the longer term, it would seriously jeopardize our country’s capability to even guarantee a permanent, reliable power-supply of any kind whatsoever: even if we continue to rely on natural gas for the foreseeable future… still less, if (or when) we are sooner or later forced to transition to hydrogen, at our own cost.

In a nutshell: if this strategy is successful, we would be driven all the way back the same ‘Dark Ages’ that we all thought – however erroneously – we had left behind in distant 1987.

And, well, I don’t know about you… but that’s a pretty high price to pay, to assuage our national conscience for a single corruption scandal: especially considering that it will be the entire country (and certainly not just Konrad Mizzi and Yorgen Fenech) who will end up actually paying it...