Low on Energy: Who will Get the Blame when the Lights Go out?

One of the areas where the difference between “expressive” and “instrumental” opinion is most often denied is that of energy policy.

First, a brief explanation of the distinction between the two should help explain why, in this area as in so many others, the political class of the European Union has been unable to take any meaningful or effective public policy action.

When you ask the general public, in an opinion poll or focus group work, whether they think more should be done to address the issue of “energy security” you will get an overwhelming yes. Similarly, when you ask questions about whether climate change should be addressed through law and regulation, you also get an overwhelming yes. If you ask questions relating to motherhood and apple pie, support for these things is very widespread indeed. That is because these questions relate to objectives rather than to mechanisms, and the answers you thus obtain are expressive.

If you ask the general public for their support for any of the top 10 mechanisms for addressing Europe’s energy security/climate change (instrumental opinion), you will find that there is virtually no support for any of them. 

In several countries in Europe it is possible to conduct an opinion poll that will demonstrate that the majority of the population is opposed to the use of nuclear power. In those same countries, you will find that the polling evidence demonstrates that the same population is as opposed to virtually every other form of energy production once they have seen what is involved in them.

It is over four years since the last European-wide opinion poll on this subject was conducted, but there is no reason to suppose that public opinion has become more favourable towards any of the main mechanisms for addressing these issues. You can find chapter and verse on the importance of this distinction between expressive and instrumental opinion, by looking at the results of the polling in Europe here.

The polling evidence from countries such as the United Kingdom is even starker; you can find an example of it here.

Faced with this gap, the difference between the objectives that the public wish to achieve, and the mechanisms they are prepared to support, European energy policy, insofar as it exists at all, is all rhetoric and no action.

In several countries of the European Union this is becoming an ever more acute problem but one which most politicians are terrified to discuss in public. The numbers on Europe’s dependency on external suppliers of its energy should be disturbing to anybody with a sense of history.

The EU currently imports 82% of its oil and 57% of its gas, making it the world’s leading importer of these fuels. Only 3% of the uranium used in European nuclear reactors was mined in Europe.

There are sporadic attempts to address these problems but they never seem to get far. While the European Union has spent years talking about a new pipeline to bring gas to southern Europe (it’s a project normally referred to as “Nabucco”) there is still no agreement as to where the gas that would be transported by it would come from. The money to build it has not been raised, and many of the countries it is meant to cross do not think it will ever be built. Which is why they are signing up for the alternative.

The government of Russia and its associate national companies has signed up all of the countries necessary for the construction of their southern pipeline, known as “South Stream”. Many of the countries along this route pleaded with the European Commission to give clear statements as to when Nabucco would be built and who would pay for it, the institutions of the European Union were unable to answer.

A small example perhaps, but practically the same thing has happened with the northern pipeline. This is for a very simple reason: none of the national member governments think that the European Commission is capable of organizing a European-wide energy policy. Even if it were, they would be very unlikely to allow it to do so. Most member state governments are organizing their own energy security precisely because they do not believe that the European Union is able to organize itself in this area.

It does not take much insight to see why the European Union was largely irrelevant during the Copenhagen climate change talks. Other major players in the world are all well aware of the inability of the European Union to deliver on any promises it makes in this area.

Fear of public opinion has meant that European energy policy is always deferred for another day. In the meantime, the world’s energy companies must try to construct investment strategies for projects which often have twenty year lead times, in a time when the political class have fled the field.

Sooner or later, that will lead to the lights starting to go out in various parts of Europe. Then, who will the political class blame?

February 2010