Recapping European Policy Decision Making

Robert Vierhout looks back on nearly a decade of columns written for EPM. European policy decisions may be difficult for the non-European to understand, he writes, but it's not much easier for Europeans to understand either.
By Robert Vierhout | August 13, 2014

After bringing views from the other side of the pond to readers of Ethanol Producer Magazine since September 2008, it is time for change. This will be my last column, and I’m taking the opportunity to look back but also to look forward.

Seven years ago the European biofuel community was in full swing, lobbying for what would become, in 2009, the first EU legislation to introduce a mandatory target for the use of biofuels. Even though we had seen a reasonable growth in capacity investments and output, European Union decision makers found that Europe should be more ambitious in getting renewables into the transport sector. The 10 percent target was hailed as a great success, but eventually it came with a high price to pay.

It is a tough reality but the EU biofuel sector has underestimated by far the building of an unholy alliance––between green and/or development nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Big Food and Big Oil––to attack the mandatory target. It is my strong belief that as long as biofuel was a voluntary measure, which it had been since 2003, oil, food and NGOs didn’t really bother. But to make its use mandatory was a bridge too far for them.

From 2009 onward, the industry became gradually aware it was sitting in a roller coaster, a big one like there are so many of in Disney World. From 2003 until 2010 it was all uphill. And then from 2010 onward, we came into a sort of spin. The indirect land use change spin. The biofuel roller coaster has shown us many vicious bends, curves and steep descending tracks, some of which so dangerous that one felt that derailing was imminent.

In my many years of Brussels experience, I haven’t seen many campaigns so mean and vicious as the one against biofuels. The bleakest moments were those when our industry was accused of committing a crime against humanity as if we were war criminals, depriving poor people from their food, as if we were speculating with food commodities, and grabbing away land in Africa, as if we were some sort of neo-colonialists. None of the accusations were never proven but still had effects. An industry once heralded as a great solution to addressing car emissions, reducing fossil fuel use and providing new opportunities for farmers was decapitated in less than four years, still six years away from the day that the mandate would take effect. This history deserves a closer analysis by an academic scholar to reveal what forces where really in the drivers seat to kill biofuels in Europe.

Still, I feel that we have survived the perfect storm that was orchestrated against us. Unlike the Andrea Gail, a ship lost at sea in 1991, the biofuel industry will not disappear in the waves. The tide is changing to our benefit. It now has become crystal clear that accusations were founded on quicksand.

As for the future, I am convinced that the role of ethanol as a motor fuel in Europe and globally will not diminish. On the contrary, ethanol is now a well-established fuel that has earned its place in the mix. There is an abundance of raw material, a strong technological improvement potential and an objective need to reduce our dependency on ever-more polluting and difficult-to-source fossil fuels.

But, more than in other jurisdictions, perhaps Brazil excluded, Europe needs to introduce fair taxation for its energy products. As long as ethanol stays the most taxed of any fuels and diesel more favorably taxed than gasoline, ethanol’s market share will not increase quickly. The other major challenge in the next five years is to get E10 accepted Europe-wide. Can we build an E10 network that will stretch beyond Finland, France and Germany? Adding major markets like the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland and Spain are essential in turning the big wheel on ethanol consumption in Europe.

Hopefully, the past seven years of columns gave the EPM readership some insight into European biofuel issues. I often wrote about topics not that much different from what was dominating the policy and political biofuel agenda in the United States but always with that particular European flavor on how Europeans make decisions. The latter is often difficult to grasp for the non-European, but as a consolation, I can reveal that many Europeans don’t understand it either.

Still, I hope you have enjoyed reading my comments and views. It has been often fun and, equally often, a challenge, but always a pleasure. What I will probably miss most is no longer having this platform to criticize and nag about the too-numerous antibiofuel forces in Europe.

Author: Robert Vierhout
Secretary-general, ePURE