Overview: One of the two main shareholders of Powerfuel Portland is city lawyer called Steve McNab. He styles himself as an environmental champion but uses his expertise in environmental law and regulations in the commercial arena to enable big business developments. What follows is a brief overview of corporate greenwashing and the business tactics of McNab.
STEVE MCNAB: GREENING THE MIX
“We describe this as low carbon” says Steve McNab of the Portland waste incinerator, or “energy recovery facility” if you’re trying to sell the idea to Dorset Council. When it comes to energy, says McNab, a co-director of Powerfuel Portland, “we are trying to green the mix considerably”. So how “green” is the proposed rubbish burner? Here’s McNab again to explain:
“in that climate change aspect of greenness I think we’ve worked this through very carefully to try to make sure that there’s a very robust plan to make sure it is green in that metric.”
So that’s clear.
When you’re trying to wrap your head around phrases like “that climate change aspect of greenness” it might be useful to note that “confusion” is one of the three key tactics used in “greenwashing”, according to the 2003 paper ‘Social Accountability and Corporate Greenwashing‘ by the business ethics scholar William S. Laufer.
WHAT IS CORPORATE GREENWASHING?
A quick example of greenwashing is one of McNab’s remarks about the Portland incinerator — that his aim with it is “to deliver good green mega watts”. He uses the same phrase — “good green” — to describe the carbon offsetting schemes that he’s got planned for the burner. In an interview with BBC Radio Solent he refers to “good green energy carbon reductive activities”. In other words, he’s stretching the concept of “good green” to include both the output from an incinerator and an tree planting scheme. Basically, he’s slapping a “good green” label on a smoke stack.
Greenwashing can be defined as “communication that misleads people into forming overly positive beliefs about an organization’s environmental practices or products”. It’s a fairly recent concept that’s a useful way to describe eco-posturing for financial gain: “The term arose in the 1980s after American environmentalist Jay Westervelt noted how at a hotel he visited, there were signs asking guests to reuse their towels in order to “save the environment.”
Similarly, Steve McNab states on his own business website that the higher purpose in his legal career is “to use his working days to save the World from environmental Armageddon”. As we’ll see, when conducting his eco-business, these kinds of glib remarks seem to flow easily from McNab’s green lips.
MCNAB AND PURE LEAPFROG
One particular “green” feature of the Powerfuel proposal stands out: the promise of a huge cash payment to make the incinerator “carbon neutral”. In his BBC Radio Solent interview, McNab talked about one of the ways in which the “climate change aspect of greenness” was being handled: “we’re looking to try and do a kind of compensatory carbon offsetting activity”.
McNab acknowledged “the fact that the plant does have emissions” but argued that these emissions would be mitigated by a cash payment of about 3 million pounds, or “about a hundred thousand pounds a year”. So how might this pay-off work? According to the Dorset Echo:
“Powerfuel Portland is working with Pure Leapfrog, a carbon offsetting specialist charity, to design and achieve its net-zero status. Offsetting plans include participating in local energy efficiency projects and forestry offsets, such as tree planting.”
Interestingly, before going into the incineration business with Giles Frampton, McNab happened to be chairman of Pure Leapfrog, which (according to his LinkedIn profile) provides “carbon offsetting services” and allows companies such as British Airways to attain “corporate carbon neutrality”. McNab left Pure Leapfrog in 2016, but clearly he’s hopped back into business with them. The CEO of Pure Leapfrog says that they’ll be a developing a “comprehensive offsetting scheme” for Powerfuel Portland.
All of which begs a number of questions: what is the financial relationship between Pure Leapfrog and Powerfuel Portland? And is Steve McNab going to feel the breeze from this £3m pay-off? Is any kind of direct or indirect remuneration involved? Any kind of finders fee or consultancy fee or compensation?
And purely in terms of the “climate change aspect of greenness” as McNab so neatly puts it, it’s all very well to garner headlines in the press like “Portland waste incinerator will be carbon neutral” — but just how meaningfully green is it to buy a huge hunk of carbon credit simply to get a massive waste burner built? And of course, there are specific environmental issues that greenwashing glosses over. Just one example: what about the effect on local biodiversity? You can’t just pay for a bunch of trees to be planted in Canada and mitigate damage to some local seahorses.
McNab’s aim with the proposed waste burner on Portland, he says, is not only “to deliver good green mega watts”. It’s also to expand the site:
“We are scouting for the best in class tech to deploy in a cluster opportunity here too. Need to get the cornerstone in first.”
So McNab sees the proposed Portland waste incinerator is just the “cornerstone” of a larger infrastructure and energy development in which he hopes to “move to other island energy solutions…”
A PASSION FOR CLEANTECH
A key plank in McNab’s plan to save the world was to set up the law firm Cleantech Cadre. The company “was founded with a unique iron focus on the growing cleantech sector”. And not only a unique iron focus on cleantech, also a total passion for it.
“We have been passionate in this sector for a long time” says the Cleantech Cadre website. “Many of our clients are totally passionate about this sector and their businesses. So are we.” In fact, the entire Cleantech Cadre team “have a common passion for and knowledge of this industry.” It’s a passion for the cleantech sector that they’re keen to share:
“Cleantech Cadre is passionate about helping clients improve their environmental performance”.
Breathless rhetoric is all well and good, but what, in practical terms, does this aching “passion” for cleantech actually mean? Steven McNab is described on a review on Chambers legal guide as a “very commercially astute lawyer”, so how is McNab’s dream of saving the planet reflected in the world of commerce and infrastructure development? What does Cleantech actually do for its clients? To answer these questions, we have to take a closer look at Cleantech Cadre’s business.
McNab’s legal specialties include “regulatory negotiations” and “environmental risk management”. He set up Cleantech Cadre to help businesses deal with issues such as “project financing” and “planning and complex consenting”, and their website gives plenty of examples of the advisory work done by the firm. The company has handled the “buying and selling” of “scores of businesses including an offshore oil field services business”.
Examples of past advisory work include:
- Barclays Private Equity on its acquisition of a chain of hundreds of petrol filling stations across the UK.
- Phoenix Equity Partners on the acquisition of ASCO oilfield services
- A Japanese utility diversifying its technology and geographical activity entering UK storage market, developing a major UK pipeline
- Advising traditional lenders considering extending further debt on a “loan to own” basis to the operators of a major UK oil refinery,
- Iggesund on the planning for its 200MW power station
- South Hook CHP — on the structuring, permitting, development and construction of the UK’s largest proposed gas fired CHP [Combined Heat and Power] Plant (approx. 500MW) and its associated grid connection.
- QPI/Exxon/Total on its proposed new build 450MW gas fired CHP in Wales
It’s clear that Cleantech Cadre’s passion is very far from being limited to the so-called “clean tech” sector. Another example:
“The London office of a US-based law firm sought our assistance in a transaction involving the purchase of an oil & gas company with operations in the UK.”
Cleantech Cadre gave this client “advice on environmental permitting”, produced “a commercially-focused report”, and “the client was pleased to be offered seamless access to specialist advice”. McNab gives the international oil & gas company advice on environmental regulations, and the company pushes forward with its plans. With Powerfuel Portland, McNab is finally getting to do for himself what he’s spent years doing for big business. He hopes.
GETTING PROJECTS OFF THE GROUND
Cleantech Cadre offers to help businesses with “derisking your projects — helping you navigate every stage of the development process”. At the outset of any energy or infrastructure development there are environmental laws and regulations to consider, and Cleantech Cadre can assist with “advising on the regulatory framework, securing consents and permits”, and “can be a valuable addition to your pitch team”.
They give an example of this kind of work:
- MVV Umwelt on its Energy from Waste PFI at Devonport Dockyard – South West Devon Energy from Waste PFI which involved innovative heat and power off-take arrangements and complex regulatory issues
Cleantech Cadre are experts in helping infrastructure developers and big business navigate tricky environmental regulations. Their advice is underpinned by a “deep understanding of the cleantech/clean energy sectors and environmental, climate change and planning laws”. As they say:
Our quick and commercial advice enables client’s to maximise their chances of planning success and unlock value
Cleantech Cadre are all about adding value to businesses which might otherwise be hampered or hamstrung by regulatory issues and planning laws:
We add a particular value in the highly regulated sectors especially cleantech, energy, waste and deals involving ‘dirty’ sites and major production and processing installations.
‘SECTOR SPECIALISTS WHO UNDERSTAND YOUR BUSINESS’
With Cleantech Cadre “advising on the regulatory framework”, it can help businesses “navigate every stage of the development process”. Using their expert knowledge of environmental law, Cleantech Cadre can enable companies to “manage operational risks and environmental liabilities”, and help them overcome such obstacles as:
- Planning and environmental permitting including site selection, representation in appeal and enforcement proceedings
- Complex heritage issues (conservation areas, listed buildings and tree preservation orders)
- Environmental aspects, in particular redevelopment of Brownfield sites (ensuring that maximum planning gain credit is achieved)
If a developer can’t secure the necessary permit, for whatever reason, perhaps on account of environmental regulations, Cleantech Cadre can assist their clients with “appeals and inquiries”, and in the worst case scenario, “if all else fails, represent them robustly in proceedings”.
The company boasts a “deep understanding of the cleantech/clean energy sectors” which is explicitly at the service of its business clients and developers:
“In-depth knowledge of your industry ensures your interests are protected at every step.”
Environmental regulations are a potential brake on development, and a barrier to profits. So, for example, when Cleantech Cadre offers professional advice on:
Nature conservation; habitat matters and impacts on development; EIA and SEIA
It keeps a commercially astute eye on securing the necessary permits, and getting a proposed development “out of the starting blocks” and in business. Cleantech Cadre’s commercial focus on environmental regulations is referred to in a telling piece of client praise (from a “Global industrials corp”) quoted on the Cleantech Cadre website:
“Excellent insight into the thought processes of the regulators we have to deal with.”
In short, the company’s passion for the cleantech sector and expertise in environmental law are a commercial benefit for developers, and add value to businesses, whether they’re in the cleantech sector or not.
GUNNERCOOKE LLP — GETTING PROJECTS DONE
On the Cleantech Cadre website, you’ll see that the name “Cleantech Cadre” is in fact “a trading name of gunnercooke LLP”, a larger London-based umbrella law firm with 193 UK partners. On the gunnercooke website it says:
“Through Cleantech Cadre, we provide innovative, strategic solutions to help our clients deploy cleantech projects, manage risk and environmental liabilities and accelerate the growth of younger ventures.”
gunnercooke (with a lower case g) aims to “provide advice on environmental management and business strategy, forthcoming environmental law and policy, tactics for transactions and dealing with regulators” — anything required to “help get projects done”.
Getting projects done. That’s the priority. For now, it’s Steven McNab’s priority to navigate the “complex heritage issues” and “environmental aspects” of constructing a waste incinerator and rubbish management facility on Portland, and get the project done.
To help save the world, obviously.
One final note. Along with “confusion”, the other two key elements in “greenwashing” are “fronting” and “posturing”. The corporate puff put out by Steve McNab and Powerfuel Portland seems to be the perfect mixture of the three.
As for the proposed £3m carbon buy-off, that’s just the cost of doing business for whoever would end up running the waste management centre. The tab will be picked up by whatever lucky multinational corporation McNab, Frampton and their backers sell the license to if they manage to hustle their plans past the council. Because if there’s one thing that’s rock solid certain amidst all this PR fluff and misdirection, it’s that Frampton and McNab aren’t going to be running an waste incinerator. The whole project is just bits of paper being shuffled across desks and contracts flying about between lawyers like smoke on the wind. Powerfuel Portland are keeping everything crossed that they can keep up the bamboozling for long enough for one of the bits of paper to get rubber stamped by Dorset Council.