Pressure is growing on the German energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, over remarks he made at a BusinessEurope conference last week criticising the EU Commission's 2030 climate and energy package, which he himself helped to design and launch.

Oettinger told an audience of European employers he doubted that a planned 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved and branded those who believed it could "save the world" as "arrogant or stupid".

That has led several figures in the upper echelons of Europe’s energy utilities to condemn the Commissioner’s words, with one describing his preferred 35% target for CO2 cuts as a "catastrophe", and another calling for his dismissal. 

“His speech was absolutely intolerable,” one senor industry source said, on condition of anonymity. “The style was unacceptable, and its content undermined the Commission’s energy policy commitment.”

“Really it was so appalling that he should not be allowed to continue in his job any longer,” the source added. “It is important that President Barroso acts on this.”

Oettinger has few friends among the EU’s ‘progressive’ business sectors and has increasingly positioned himself as a champion of energy intensive industry.

“I know where Mr Oettinger is coming from,” Peter Botschek, the environmental director of the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) told EurActiv. “We are also very concerned with this [greenhouse gas reductions] proposal and we share his doubts. He is doing whatever he can to represent European industry.”

The Commissioner argues that high energy prices have helped reduce the bloc’s industrialisation level to 15%, some five percentage points below an EU target for 2020.

Speaking at a conference of Europe’s electricity associations yesterday (3 February), Oettinger declined an invitation to repeat his BusinessEurope remarks, and backtracked slightly on his stated climate target-scepticism. 

“I am in favour of a 40% [greenhouse gas reduction] target and not an ‘at least 40% target’ because that brings expectations that we cannot fulfill,” he said, referring to a Eurelectric manifesto he was presented with at the meeting.

Renewable energy target

Oettinger also spoke out against making a proposed 27% target for renewable energy's share in the energy mix by 2030 binding on member states. It would translate as a 45% share of the electricity market, he claimed.

“I am not sure if 45% is acceptable when you are looking to France which has 75% of its electricity from nuclear,” he said, adding that: “75 +45 is more than 100%. It's quite complicated.”

“We need a coherent approach,” he added.  

But energy industry officials said that it was Oettinger who risked incoherence, as he had changed his mind several times over support for energy efficiency and renewable energy targets.

“I think Commissioner Oettinger is not the most reliable source,” one senior business association official said. “Business needs stability and a clear and long term perspective, and that is not what we have got for the last two or three years.”

‘Catastrophe’

Others were more outspoken. “It would be a catastrophe if we did not reach the 40% greenhouse gas reductions target,” one industry figure told EurActiv. “It is the minimum that is acceptable for us and it would put us in a huge position of weakness to arrive in Paris in 2015 [for the UNFCCC climate summit] with a 35% target, in terms of our positioning towards the US and China.”

By 2015, Oettinger will probably have left the Commission, following EU parliament elections later this year. Under EU rules, he will not be able to take a job in industry for at least 18 months. But that has not doused suspicions that he could eventually end up in a high-profile position. 

Research by Corporate Europe Observatory shows that six of the 13 departing EU Commissioners in President Barroso’s first administration, subsequently took up positions in the business sector or with lobbyist firms.

Key to Oettinger’s position is an oft-repeated saw that “in the EU we have to pay higher energy prices – by a factor of three for gas, and a factor of two for power,” as he put it at the BusinessEurope conference. “This is not acceptable,” he told that audience.

Environmentalists say the commissioner’s figures are suspect because US natural gas prices have tripled since April 2012 and show no sign of slowing.

“We’re not talking about multiplying the price by a factor of three or four anymore, just two,” said Antoine Simon of Friends of the Earth, “and the trend shows that the ratio will keep on decreasing.”

Collective responsibility

The commissioner’s office insists that Oettinger has not broken ranks with the Brussels consensus in his speeches, just maintained that a 40% CO2 cut is ambitious.

“Of course he supports the decision of the Commission and as Commissioner for Energy he will design energy policy in a way that contributes to the achievement of the targets in a cost-effective manner,” a spokesman for Oettinger told EurActiv.

Straws in the Brussels wind suggest that Oettinger had been admonished in a phone call by a prominent German minister for undermining EU principles of ‘collective responsibility’. A diplomatic source would only provide the commissioner with the most tepid of support.

“Mr Oettinger is independent and of course has his own views of energy policy, and he has been sharing these views - collectively - with the public in the recent past,” the diplomat said. “He does not in any way get instructions from Berlin.”

Jo Leinen, a German MEP and former chair of the European Parliament’s environment committee said that it was not in Germany’s interests for the EU to have a “feeble and half-hearted energy policy” because of Berlin’s ambitious ‘Energiewende’ programme of transitioning to a renewables-led energy system. 

“I am sure there have been indications to our German commissioner Mr Oettinger not to block a CO2 target - and even not to block a renewables target,” Leinen said. “I am also sure that in the Parliamentary debate on 2030 targets in Strasbourg [on Wednesday 5 February], MEPs will criticise Oettinger for undermining or watering down the compromise that was agreed.”

But NGOs raised questions about the Commissioner’s commitment to collective responsibility, given his willingness to oppose a policy that he had been tasked with advancing.  

“One would expect all Commissioners to respect the decision they made collectively,” said Wendel Trio, the director of Climate Action Network. “Given that the EU’s impact assessment report indicates the feasibility of the 40% target as well as of higher targets, one could seriously raise questions about his real intentions,” he told EurActiv.