EXCLUSIVE / Biofuels companies and associations sent EU cabinet members three e-mails an hour, many containing catastrophic warnings, in the run-up to a recent European Commission proposal to account for greenhouse gas emissions that the fuel crops might indirectly cause.

As the lobby pressure reached its apex, cabinet members in at least one Commission directorate argued for kicking the proposal into the long grass, according to documents obtained by EurActiv.

The EU's draft law was tabled by the Commission in October last year and signalled the end of the EU's support for so-called first generation biofuels, which are considered the most polluting and have been blamed for displacing food crops in developing countries.

>> Read: EU calls time on first-generation biofuels

The circumstances under which the EU law was tabled are now coming to the surface following an ‘access to information’ application by EurActiv, which the European Commission partially upheld.

The Commission proposal followed “unanimous” agreement among EU experts in the bloc's Joint Research Centre (JRC) that indirect land use change (ILUC) was a significant – and crop-specific – problem, inadequately addressed under existing EU law.

ILUC is the net carbon loss thought to occur when forests and grasslands are cleared for food production that has been displaced by biofuels cultivation elsewhere.

The EU currently has a 2020 target to source 10% of Europe’s transport fuel to renewables, mostly biofuels, for reasons ranging from energy security to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But key MEPs, scientists, and Commission sources involved in the original policy-setting have questioned the target’s official narrative, and the ILUC debate has become a testing ground for the fuel’s green credentials.

When the new ILUC proposal was launched on 17 October, EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said that some biofuels currently receiving EU subsidies were “as bad as, or even worse than the fossil fuels that they replace.”

But documents seen by EurActiv show that the Commission was divided on the question a week before Hedegaard spoke, and facing intense pressure from the biofuels industry.

On 10 October, members of Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn’s cabinet, in charge of Research, Innovation and Science, called for delays to the EU’s proposal, and particularly to the idea of a 5% cap on the amount of biofuels in the EU’s 2020 transport mix. 

Quinn is responsible for the work of the EU's JRC experts, on whose advice the bloc typically bases policy.

Cabinet minutes revealed

Her cabinet was at this time “receiving three mails by the hour on this subject,” according to unofficial minutes of a cabinet coordination meeting. "Strong industry concern,” the minutes note.

Several of these lobby mails predicted that EU action would kill the biofuels industry, and one claimed that 450,000 European jobs would be lost.

On the morning of the day that Quinn’s cabinet ministers proposed delaying the proposal, a meeting took place in the Commission's Berlaymont building with representatives of the Irish-based Ethanol Europe Renewables Ltd, and the Hungarian-based Pannonia Ethanol. 

A 17-page cabinet steering brief for the meet said that the Commission would safeguard existing biofuels investments, and limit first-generation biofuels consumption levels to 5% of the total transport mix by 2020.

But by the evening, one cabinet member at the coordination meeting was quoted saying that “grandfathering [protecting past investments] of existing plants is being examined… together with a possible delay in implementation – ie. to push back the dates in the Directive.”  

“The issue of the 5% ceiling for 1st generation biofuels could be addressed at a later stage – during the discussion with the Council,” the cabinet member says.

Another participant says that s/he “regrets that [the] industry stand is coming a bit late in the process.”

“PL [Poland] has heard from industry the clear stand that ‘industry will stay in biofuels only if we (EU) do not kill the 1st generation’ [of biofuels],” another cabinet member says.

Murder with intent?

Lobby documents released by the Commission show that the industry’s stand went much further than this.

One missive from the European Biodiesel Board accused the Commission of “purposely causing the death of the whole EU biodiesel industrial sector.”

It says the ILUC proposal would result in “closing hundreds of production sites worth many billions euros of recent investments and driving to the immediate loss of 50,000 direct and 400,000 indirect employments in the EU biodiesel production chain.”

The UK’s National Farmers Union said the EU’s plan would cause “the collapse of the biodiesel market and the catastrophic breakup of an essential market for UK farmers.”

A coalition of biofuels association – including the EBB, ePURE, Fediol, Coceral and Copa-Cogeca – slammed the draft law as “a masterpiece of irresponsible policy making.”

The Commission received a paper mountain of such warnings but refused to release several documents to EurActiv, and redacted names and key passages in many others.

Final proposals

In what may be a measure of Hedegaard’s resolve, Brussels’ final proposals – while disappointing environmentalists – did impose a 5% cap on the amount of first generation biofuels in the EU’s 2020 transport mix, and ended public subsidies for them thereafter.

A 60% greenhouse gas-saving threshold was also imposed on new biofuels installations from July 2014, and credits were quadrupled for advanced biofuels to encourage their production. 

However, the biodiesel industry was saved from the demise it feared by an EU decision not to include feedstock-specific values measuring its default greenhouse gas emissions.

Biodiesel is widely-recognised as one of the worst-polluting fuel crops.

Last year, Rahmawati Retno Winarni, the director of Indonesia’s Sawit Watch [Palm Oil watch], told EurActiv that 660 land conflicts were raging over palm oil plantations in her country – which could be used to make biodiesel – and that several lives had been lost as a result.  

A report by Corrine LePage MEP currently being debated in the European Parliament would amend the EU’s draft law to add sustainability criteria reflecting this.

These would be included in amendments to the Renewable Energy Directive and Fuel Quality Directive, although they would first have to be approved by EU ministers.

In order to protect investments made because of earlier EU targets, it proposes a grandfathering clause until 2017, exempting some biofuels from the ILUC legislation, so long as their market share stands below the 2010 production level, when biofuels had a 4.27% market share. Eighty percent of that is made up of biodiesel. 

The industry campaign against the proposal, meanwhile, continues.