Champion Time

The European biofuels industry is in need of a champion or champions to defend the industry, writes Robert Vierhout. As almost half of the elected members of parliament are new, it's a good time to reset the discussion on biofuels.
By Robert Vierhout | July 11, 2014

Europe is in the process of reshaping its balance of power. The first step was the European Parliament elections in May. Later this year there will be a new European Commission and finally a new president of the European Council. 

The elections in May revealed an important shift towards a more “nationalistic” Europe.

As expected, the more eurosceptic powers won in strength that will force the pro-European parties like Christian-Democrats (EPP), Social Democrats (S&D) and Liberals (ALDE) to work more in unison.
Even though out of a total of 751 seats, the EPP kept its leading position (221), it has no other option but to work closely with the S&D (191 seats) to obtain the majority needed to adopt legislation. Like in a classical prisoner's dilemma, only in this way the Parliament can counterweight the Council of Member States.

This “nationalistic” shift in the balance of power will certainly have an impact on how in the next five years the European Commission will conduct its business. Notwithstanding that Jean-Claud Juncker, the designated Commission president, is a true European, he cannot ignore the almost 25 percent of the members of European Parliament that are highly critical of the European Union.

The present Commission has understood this already when it published its 2020-’30 energy and climate policy plans that foresees a much bigger role for the member states than we have seen ever before.

What are the expectations for the biofuel industry and policy under the new balance of power?
With almost 50 percent newly elected members of European Parliament, there must be a good opportunity to reset the discussion on biofuels. Interestingly, most of the members who were highly vocal in the indirect land use change (ILUC) discussion didn't succeed in re-election.

But the emphasis in the debate needs to change. In the past, there was an almost exclusive focus on the environmental impact of biofuels. Now the industry needs to underline the benefits of biofuels for the economy and the opportunity to increase domestically produced energy.

There might be new opportunities now that the EPP has taken the leadership in three crucially important parliamentary committees: energy, environment and agriculture. The S&D will lead the Economic Affairs Committee, which may signal that for this political group economic recovery is what counts. In the past five years, a German Socialist who had a major influence in the discussion on ILUC—not to the benefit of the industry—presided over the environment committee.

The Green group shrunk in size, which also creates an opportunity. However, the much larger group of eurosceptics could become a force that will express itself against an EU based biofuel policy from the point of view that the market should decide what transportation fuel to use.

The challenge for the European ethanol industry is fourfold: 1) Rebrand by putting more emphasis on economic impact, domestic energy supply, agricultural opportunities, and technology push; 2) Inform new members of Parliament ASAP; 3) Scout for champions or a group of champions who will defend the industry; and 4) Put much more emphasis in the lobby at the national level.

This stage of rebuilding political support for the ethanol industry cannot be underestimated.
The ILUC-debate in the past two years demonstrated the tremendous impact only a few members of Parliament can have on the general perception of biofuels and the direction the decision making can take.

As far as the new European Commission is concerned, it is too early to tell how it will position itself on the biofuel policy. Also very likely in this institution, we may see a shift that could be to the benefit of the industry. Much, however, will depend on what person (nationality) will head the Climate Action Department. If, again, this will be someone who dislikes biofuels, like the present Commissioner, we are in for a difficult time. Here too, finding a supporter of biofuels, is crucial.


Author: Robert Vierhout
Secretary-general, ePURE
Vierhout@epure.org