Twitter row after Oettinger dubs UK nuclear plans ‘Soviet’

  

A prominent clean energy campaigner has been banned from the European Energy Forum after tweeting remarks made by the EU’s energy commissioner describing the UK’s plan to hand out long-term contracts to nuclear companies as “Soviet”.

Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger’s putdown of the €16.5-billion British plan will likely be met with furrowed brows in London, where the 35-40-year contracts have proved controversial to some because of their length, nature and the scale of the subsidy involved.

Oettinger’s remark was made on 19 February at a meeting of the European Energy Forum, which brings together MEPs and leaders of industry. 'Chatham House rules' are assumed at such meetings, although they are neither advertised nor announced. 

The Chatham House rule, which is often used in press briefings, protects the anonymity of speakers, while allowing the information they impart to be reported.

But Mark Johnston, a well-known environmental expert on the Brussels scene, tweeted Oettinger’s unscripted comment, which EurActiv understands was made in response to a “knockabout” question by a high-profile UKIP MEP.

It was one of several colourful – and irreverent – remarks by the commissioner at the meeting.

“When non-attribution is sought, I always respect it,” Johnston told EurActiv. “But when no such request is made, as was the case in this dinner, then attribution is fair comment.”

Johnston, an external advisor to the European Policy Centre, and 350.org website, decided to tweet and damn the consequences.

“That Commissioner Oettinger's description of UK plans was widely applauded by many diners shows, I think, that there was a ring of truth to it and that concern was shared by others present,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Oettinger declined to comment on the affair. 

Twitter fall-out

The twitter fallout began the next day, when Johnston’s message was retweeted by Jeremy Gordon, the editor of World Nuclear News, an industry newswire supported by the World Nuclear Association.

Gordon described Oettinger’s comment as “outrageous” and demanded to know who had broken the Chatham House rule.  

“We all know the UK is bending over backwards for #nuclear and that @GOettingerEU must HATE that, but this kind of language is alarming,” he tweeted to the Commissioner. Another World Nuclear News journalist, David Hess, also tweeted to Oettinger asking for confirmation of his statement.  

Oettinger replied - on twitter - that “it was a jokey reference, made in the context of the UK wanting to introduce capacity mechanisms.” That seemed to be the end of the matter.

But nine weeks later, when Johnston tried to attend an EEF meeting in Brussels, he was stopped at the door by Conservative MEP Giles Chichester, who, Johnston says, informed him that he was banned, due to a complaint which had been made about his breaking the Chatham House rule.

Chichester is the president of the EEF and MEP for the UK's South West constituency where the Hinkley Point C nuclear project would be built.

He is currently on a tour of biofuels refineries in Malaysia but Pascale Verheust, the EEF’s director-general, told EurActiv that the forum had actually received a phone call from a journalist, rather than a complaint. 

Chatham House rule

“That never usually happens and it was just unfortunate,” she said. “This is a very delicate issue as we hold our events under Chatham House rules and that’s not something we want people attending to do.”

Verheust said she was very sorry about the way events had unfolded and pointed out that the EEF had previously allowed Johnston to attend meetings, even though he is not a group member.

The fact that Oettinger had himself confirmed his remarks in a tweet was “something we could discuss forever,” she said. “The point is that these are our rules and the way we proceed, and we would like to keep it that way.”

If Johnston were to become an associate membership of the forum, which charges a €7,000 membership fee, he would be readmitted to its meetings, she said.

Nuclear debate

The row underlines a deepening debate in the UK about what place in the UK’s energy mosaic should be reserved for nuclear power, which currently receives £2.3 billion of public subsidies annually.

The French company EDF is currently bidding to run two nuclear plants in Hinkley, Somerset, under a ‘Contract for Difference’ (CfD) which guarantees a long-term fixed price for low-carbon electricity generators.

At just under £100 per megawatt hour, the minimum price reportedly being discussed with the French energy giant would be nearly double the current market rate, and 19% higher than onshore wind turbines.

But the deal has been held up by an ongoing review of European Commission state aid rules, which limit the amount of public subsidies offered by governments to energy utilities.

Low carbon generators may qualify for an exemption, but whether nuclear energy qualifies as a low carbon power source is contested.

Lawyers for the Becker Buettner Held consultancy in Brussels recently said that the UK’s CfD scheme for nuclear generators could not be deemed “compatible” with EU law under any current or possible future frameworks.

Changes to the EU’s state aid guidelines could only occur after a consultation with other member states that would take up to two years, the consultancy said.  

If approved, Hinkley Point C would be the UK’s first new nuclear plant since 1995.

Positions: 

The UK's Department for Energy and Climate Change sent EurActiv a statement, which said: "Our long-term vision is for low-carbon generation to compete fairly on cost, without financial support and delivering the best deal for the consumer.  Technologies are however at different stages of development, market failures mean low-carbon generation can’t compete fairly with fossil fuels, and we may not be able to rely on the market to deliver security of electricity supply. Therefore EMR is a set of arrangements to take us through this transition, working with the existing market and maintaining a liberal approach while addressing market failures.  It will ensure that the UK remains a leading destination for investment in low carbon electricity – boosting our economy by generating skills, expertise and hundreds of thousands of jobs in this sector.

 We do not expect the Capacity Market to award long-term contracts to nuclear plant.  Contracts for Difference (CfDs) will provide efficient long term support for all forms of low carbon generation – including new nuclear, renewables and Carbon Capture & Storage.  They give greater certainty and stability of revenues by removing exposure to volatile wholesale prices, and protect consumers from paying for support when electricity prices are high. This consequently makes the development of low carbon generation cheaper for both investors and consumers.

 We are legislating for a Capacity Market as a proportionate, market-led response to the increased risks to security of electricity supply. We remain committed to the single energy market and we are engaging with the European Commission and EU Member States to ensure that the GB Capacity Market is consistent with its development."

Timeline: 
  • 22 May 2013: European Council - thematic summit on energy
  • 7 June: Energy Council - adoption of 'conclusions' on internal market
  • July: Guidelines expected on renewable support schemes due, along with guidelines on generation capacity
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