On the 25th March, as the EU was scrambling to respond to the invasion of Ukraine and its potential implications for the EU’s access to energy supplies – in particular gas – from Russia the US President Joe Biden and Commission President Von der Leyen announced the formation of an EU-US Energy task force. Since then, very little has been revealed of the work of this task force. Should we be concerned that the fossil fuel industry is once again using the opportunity to set us on a path of future fossil fuel dependency?
At the end of 2022 it is difficult to judge but there is surely cause for concern. What we do know is that the task force is co-chaired by two officials from the EU and US respectively Amos Hochstein, U.S. Senior Advisor for Energy Security, and Björn Seibert, Head of Cabinet of the Commission President and has had 3 meetings which have been publicly reported – on the 28th of April, the 22nd of June and the 3rd of November – and 3 meetings of ‘working groups’ of the task force.
According to the readouts published by the European Commission these meetings discussed diversifying EU gas supplies, reducing gas consumption and increasing renewables, methane emissions and LNG exports from the United States to Europe and long-term EU-US cooperation on LNG.
But beyond these ‘official readouts’ information is scarce. NGOs, including Friends of the Earth have asked the European Commission for documents associated with these meetings. All that has been made available thus far are the redacted agendas of these meetings which outline little more than the topics for discussion.
So, while it is not clear who has attended these meetings or in reality what was discussed the readouts also refer to other, equally if not more obscure processes and meetings. The readout from the European Commission in November refers to ‘multiple meetings with EU Member States and EU and US industry representatives to discuss and compare policy approaches.’ It’s not clear when all these meetings took place, who attended them and what they discussed or were they truly additional meetings set up under the auspices of the task force. The task force also claims to have ‘initiated a dialogue among the EU, the US Government, EU Member States, industry, NGOs and private sector representatives to share the key elements for successful consumer campaigns as well as actionable policy recommendations to smooth energy demand peaks, reduce natural gas and electricity usage, improve energy efficiency of people’s homes and lower consumer bills as well as government expenditures.’ Again, as above it’s not clear if the task force did this.
However, what we do know about the task force provides reasons for concern. One reason for worry is its leadership. Amos Hochstein, the US lead on the task force appears to be a cheerleader for fossil gas having officially rejoined the US State Department in August 2021 after working as an executive at Tellurian, an LNG export developer. On December 11th he was reported by the Financial Times to say a refusal of financiers to back more fracking was ‘Un-American’.
In addition, a number of fossil gas companies are reported to be participating or advising this task force. According to a Reuters report in July Cheniere a major US LNG producer ‘is one of a handful of companies that advises a White House and EU-backed task force developing a plan to wean EU countries off Russian gas”. It has also been reported that Freeport LNG, another US gas export company have also publicly acknowledged participation in the task force.
However, exactly which companies are involved in the task force has not been publicly disclosed, nor the content of the discussions that are taking place between these companies and the US administration and the European Commission. According to the European Commission the membership of the task force and attendees are confidential.
So, what is going on? What meetings, if any are the task force holding beyond those officially reported. What is the content of those meetings? And how much influence is the fossil fuel industry having?
Europe and the US are already facing the twin threats of climate emergency and the insidious and overt influence of the fossil fuel industry on climate and energy policy. In the United States Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP, and the industry lobby group the American Petroleum Institute (API) spent a combined $452.6 million lobbying the federal government between 2011 and 2021. In the EU where members of the European Commission openly attend meetings of with, sponsored by, and hosted by the Fossil Fuel industry. In just two and a half years, the current European Commission engaged in 500 meetings with representatives and lobbyists of oil, gas and coal companies. This also infects the WTO talks with more than 600 fossil fuel lobbyists registered to attend COP27 in Egypt in 2022.
None of this is without or consequence as the world remains wildly off track to achieve the Paris goal of keeping the world within 1.5 degrees C and efforts to restrict fossil fuel exploitation continue to meet massive resistance as recent efforts at the COP attest. Meanwhile the US energy system continues to be dominated by the interests of fossil fuel corporations with even Joe Biden’s flagship programme being held hostage the summer to demands for new fossil fuel infrastructure. Europe meanwhile is currently suffering an energy crisis due in large part to its failure to move away from fossil fuels. A task force beholden to the interests of fossil fuel companies is only likely to maintain rather than escape from this dependence.
EU-US energy cooperation can certainly help build a new energy future based on renewables and reductions in energy demand. But the lack of transparency and clear involvement of fossil fuel interests in the EU-US Energy Task Force risks that the private interest of fossil fuel companies will exert an excessive influence and rather than escape from fossil fuel dependency EU-US cooperation will entrench Europe’s dangerous dependence on climate killing fossil gas.