Op-ed published in collaboration with Greenpeace Belgium.
Representatives of Shell, TotalEnergies, the gas lobby and the Belgian government are sitting in a bar to discuss our future. Is this a joke? Unfortunately not. It’s exactly what’s about to happen in Brussels.
Tomorrow, September 20th, a who’s who of the fossil fuel industry will descend on the capital. Among the speakers at this event organised, sponsored and attended by the industry are the European Investment Bank head of innovation, a policy advisor to the Belgian minister of energy, and a European Commission official. This is just the latest exemple in a long tradition of sponsorship of events by the industry to greenwash its destructive business model and gain access to our decision makers.
What’s the problem you may wonder? Why couldn’t decision makers join events attended or sponsored by the fossil fuel industry? After all, don’t they already interact regularly? Well, this is exactly where the problem lies.
For decades, fossil fuel lobbyists have worked relentlessly to deny science, to delay, weaken, and sabotage climate action, and to protect their profits. Tactics that have been and continue to be devastatingly effective. Climate action at all levels is falling far short of what’s needed in order to prevent the worst in terms of human suffering, extreme weather and biodiversity loss.
As millions face sky-rocketing bills and energy poverty, and the climate continues to break down around us, our decision makers are cozying up with the very industry responsible for these crises. At the European level for instance, between December 2019 and May 2022, the Von der Leyen Commission engaged in a staggering 500 meetings with representatives and lobbyists of oil, gas and coal companies. That’s close to one meeting every working day.
This has very concrete consequences. REPowerEU, the European 300 billion euros response to the growing energy crisis presented by the Commission in May, puts the gas industry in the driving seat to determine which measures are “feasible”. Meanwhile, European governments are set to spend at least an extra 50 billion euros on fossils this winter. While some of this will go to short term energy supplies, a significant chunk will pay for new and expanded fossil infrastructure, thereby creating longer-term lock-ins.
How effective the fossil fuel industry’s lobbying practices are is perhaps best exemplified by the sudden popularity of hydrogen, an energy carrier that was barely considered a few years ago, but is now heralded as the energy solution of the future. In yesterday’s State of the European Union, hydrogen again came to the rescue, when Von der Leyen doubled the ambition of ‘green’ hydrogen (produced with renewable energy) for 2030. This when experts already point out it is unlikely we will have the surplus renewable energy required to produce the current ambition level, and industry lobby group Hydrogen Europe is pushing to remove all meaningful requirements of proof that said hydrogen is really renewable. Meanwhile, the future promise of green hydrogen is used to justify investing billions of euros in infrastructure for its ‘grey’ cousin produced from gas or other fossil fuels – playing directly into the hands of the oil and gas majors.
Also in Belgium we can see the sticky fingerprints of the industry on policies and projects being presented with great fanfare. In the various hydrogen strategies, the “ambition of the government” could easily be replaced by “the ambition of Fluxys”, so close are its projections and priorities to those of the gas industry. Industry representatives also get to tag along on official missions to e.g. Norway at the end of August, which failed to secure more reasonable gas prices for our households, but in the margins of which negotiations on a new carbon capture and storage project continued between Fluxys and Equinor.
Meanwhile, transparency around such dealings and meetings consists of a voluntary lobby register at the parliament which gives no information at all, and a theoretical right to request information after the facts but often receive a “go fish” reply - or no reply at all. Also at next week’s meeting, the list of participants apart from the speakers is carefully shielded from public scrutiny. But if we cannot know exactly with whom our policy makers are meeting and what they are discussing, what does that tell us of the interests being served at these meetings?
It’s high time for change. If the objective of our policy makers were to go into these fossil fuel meetings and tell them their time is up, that would be great. But their policies today indicate something very different. So, the first step towards policies which would lead us to a sustainable energy future is limiting the powerful voices wanting to maintain the status quo of an extractive and wasteful system dependent on infrastructure concentrated in their hands. If we do not want our climate and energy policies to be the butt of a ‘Belgian joke’, we need to keep the fossil fuel industry out of them. Just like tobacco lobbyists are being restricted in public health debates.
This means a firewall to end the fossil fuel industry’s access to politicians and decision-making bodies. It means stopping the revolving door between jobs in public office and the fossil fuel industry. It means kicking fossil fuels out of our politics once and for all.