A new European energy infrastructure policy in line with the climate emergency

An opinion by Marie Toussaint, a French environmental activist and jurist in international environmental law, GreenEFA MEP on ITRE, ENVI & JURI committees.

During this week’s plenary session, Members of the European Parliament will adopt a resolution setting out the Parliament’s views on the upcoming revision of the trans-European energy infrastructure Regulation (TEN-E Regulation). The current law sets out the process and criteria to select cross-border electricity, gas and oil infrastructure projects of European interest. For the upcoming revision due in December this year, the Greens/EFA group is asking to end EU support for fossil fuel projects, such as gas pipelines. In addition, this year the European Commission should adopt transitional guidance on how to spend EU funds until the revised law enters into force. This is to ensure that only projects in line with the Paris Agreement are supported.

TEN-E: An outdated regulation noncompliant with climate goals

The current regulation has significant shortcomings that need to be urgently addressed in this year’s revision: It has been adopted in 2013 and is therefore not aligned to the Paris Agreement, nor the European Green Deal. Therefore, the EU is still spending taxpayers’ money on fossil fuel infrastructure that will be in place for the next 20-60 years, instead of dedicating support exclusively to future-oriented infrastructures, such as those enabling the integration of large shares of renewable energy. The current selection criteria consist of diversification and security of supply, rather than of sustainability and climate compatibility. What’s more, projects are selected according to a procedure that is excluding independent analysis and democratic control. 

Continuing the race for fossil energy resources is not only a bet against European climate goals but is also heavily impacting citizens’ fundamental rights: heatwaves, the rise of the oceans and increased risk of droughts will increasingly impact the lives and health of millions of Europeans over the continent, in contradiction with the EU’s obligation to protect the rights of its citizen.

The regulation on Trans-European Networks for Energy defines the process and criteria with which EU priority cross-border infrastructure projects are selected. These priority projects, so-called “Projects of common interest” (PCIs), benefit from accelerated permitting procedures and are automatically eligible for the receipt of financial support via EU funds. 

The need for transitional measures until a new framework is in place!

In February 2020, Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson promised, in an interrogation by Greens, to make the EU energy infrastructure compatible with the 2050 climate-neutrality target and to move towards “a cleaner energy infrastructure”. Vice-President Timmermans reacted via Twitter right before an important European Parliament vote on the latest energy infrastructure project list, stating that all projects would be “green deal-checked”, thus compatible with the European Green Deal. The majority of parliamentarians, reassured by these statements, let pass the latest, gas-prone infrastructure list.  However, in response to a written question from Greens/EFA MEP Marie Toussaint on how to concretely ensure that projects are “compatible with the Green Deal”, Commissioner Simson replied that, “the evaluation process will also take into account the objectives of the European Green Deal”, raising more questions than providing answers. Therefore, no criteria or processes are in place to ensure effective alignment with climate and sustainability goals. Several written questions supported by parliamentarians across the political spectrum are underway. The criteria for the selection of projects, as well as the process to establish future project lists, are under scrutiny from the European Parliament.

Today’s resolution sends a strong and unified signal requesting coherent and clear transitional guidance for projects and their funding as early as this year, so as to ensure future energy infrastructure is compatible with climate targets.

The Greens/EFA group is also working on a blueprint for a revised energy infrastructure regulation. The new policy will be an important building block towards a climate-proof energy system. 

A blueprint for a revised energy infrastructure regulation

The European energy infrastructure must set our system on track towards achieving the climate objectives and making the European Green Deal a reality. As pipelines and electricity lines are long term investments, choosing a wrong path today creates lock-in effects into fossil fuels. 

As the extraction, transport and use of fossil gas lead to emissions responsible for climate change, the related infrastructures need to be phased out to achieve climate neutrality. Today’s gas pipeline projects quickly become sunk investments. 

Infrastructures that enable the energy transition and allow for true system integration must be boosted by the revised TEN-E regulation. The guiding principles of energy efficiency first, achieving a fully renewable energy sources based system, phasing out fossil fuels and strong democratic control need to be at the core of a new EU energy infrastructure law. 

Efficiency first

The climate-proof society we are building must prioritise efficiency as it allows us to achieve our goals at lower costs. Energy efficiency, energy sufficiency and demand-side measures (such as renovations) can reduce the need to build costly infrastructure. A new TEN-E regulation must check every infrastructure project against potentially more sustainable, alternative measures.

100% renewable

Renewable energies come emission-free and electrification with renewables is the key energy policy to help to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. Therefore, the TEN-E regulation needs to support a 100% renewable energy network only, allowing for a fast transition. 

Currently, only large, cross-border infrastructure projects are in the scope of the TEN-E regulation, leaving out decentralised renewable energy infrastructures run by citizens or local or regional administrations. Infrastructures enabling citizen energy communities and renewable energy communities need to be included in the scope of TEN-E regulation through a broadened legal base. This should also allow support for energy infrastructures that are increasing efficiency, flexibility and storage capabilities when demonstrating cross-border impact.

No room for fossil fuels

Until now, the TEN-E regulation allows for the promotion of fossil fuel infrastructure, such as gas pipelines, despite the negative climate impact these are perpetuating. Such infrastructures have already benefited from more than €1.5 billion in direct EU CEF funds between 2015 and 2016. The current gas grid is sufficiently capable of meeting a variety of future gas demand scenarios Artelys Report, including from a ‘security of supply’ perspective. 

Therefore neither oil nor gas infrastructures merit a place in the future TEN-E regulation. Also “false solutions” such as fossil-fuel based alternative gases (including so-called grey, blue, or turquoise hydrogen derived from oil or gas) are not in line with the climate neutrality targets. Fossil gas pipeline “upgrades” to potentially transport an undefined share of green hydrogen in an undetermined future may provide a lifeline to the gas industry, but are not compatible with the European Green Deal. The new TEN-E regulation must not support works reducing methane leakage from fossil gas infrastructures: According to the ‘polluter pays principle,’ a core concept of EU environmental law, pipeline operators are fully liable for such emissions and need to pay costs to remedy them.

Rolling out an elaborate EU infrastructure network for the capture and storage of carbon (CCS) is ill-guided and a waste of taxpayer money, as the alternative of green hydrogen derived from renewable energy is available. 

What about hydrogen?

The Greens/EFA group supports gases from renewable energy sources, such as biomethane and biogas in the limits of sustainable availability, as well as green hydrogen produced from 100% renewable energy sources. They should be deployed in those sectors that cannot be made more efficient or electrified and where no other cost-effective or technical alternative exists, such as some industrial applications and long-haul transport. The GreensEFA group is also demanding a clear taxonomy based on strict criteria to support renewable hydrogen.

Strong democratic control & no conflicts of interest

The current TEN-E regulation has several conflicts of interest inbuilt. ENTSO-G and ENTSO-E, EU bodies composed of the electricity and gas transport industries, are playing a very important role in the process to define priority infrastructure projects: every two years, they produce a long-term infrastructure plan called the Ten Year Network Development Plan (TYNDP). These plans contain their estimates of how much electricity and gas Europe will consume in the coming years and a list of infrastructure projects that their Members want to build. As has been recently revealed (Global Witness: Pipe down), around 75% of the tax money distributed to gas infrastructure went directly to members of ENTSO-G (e.g. gas networks operators) – the very same body which has a big say in choosing priority projects. This is an unacceptable conflict of interest and we need an independent body to oversee the ENTSOs in establishing the network plans and replacing them for the infrastructure project selection. The TYNDP needs to be aligned with EU energy and climate policies and should be submitted to the independent Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators (ACER) for approval.

Moreover, the public must be well informed, given access to project data, be updated about all ways to influence the process and able to have a say at every level. The European Parliament must be more involved in the process, as well as European consumer organisations and stakeholders in general.

The resolution of this week is a key milestone towards the end of public funding of fossil fuel infrastructures. The Greens/EFA group continues to mobilise for a revised and ambitious TEN E.