Energy battles ahead

The driver of energy policy in Europe is public opinion. No ifs, no buts, the evidence is overwhelming. From nuclear power to windmills, from shale gas to transport systems… the developments in energy public policy are only comprehensible if seen as being largely the outcome of politicians’ assessments of public opinion. In Europe, the public opinion that counts is national public opinion. There is no European Union energy policy, no matter how many times Commission officials and others may urge that there should be.

Sometimes public opinion is the driver because it is passionate and clear; see the German government reverse on nuclear power.

But other times, public opinion is a decisive factor because the public couldn’t care less. If politicians believe that a project is likely to be difficult, expensive and unlikely to bring benefits within the “electoral cycle” because no votes are going to be swung by it, then its fate is that of the Nabucco project. Whatever happened to that? Quite.

The national governments of the European Union have jealously guarded their “sovereignty” on energy policy. France is pro-nuclear, Germany is anti. Germany wants Russian gas piped in, Poland and the Balkans wanted it from anywhere but Russia (guess who won?). The UK looks to be pro-shale gas and oil, along with Poland. Most states of the European Union seem to be anti. And so it goes on, a bedlam of contradictory policies driven by national interest and popular opinion’s perception of that interest.

Public opinion on energy is becoming the great prize for an awful lot of powerful groups. Not just ‘big oil’ or the nuclear industry but a range of environmental pressure groups. The issue of climate change has become of primary importance for groups such as Greenpeace, Sierra club and WWF. Not to mention the foundations like Pew and Packard. Some of these groups are sophisticated operators, they know how to compete in the communications market.

Over the coming weeks we are going to look at how this battle of competitive communications is playing out in the various states of the European Union – and between the differing energy sources. As it unfolds it is not an edifying story in coherent policy making…

…it is the tale of Europe’s energy policy.

June 2011