The EU’s competition commissioner, Joaquín Almunia, has said that Brussels will investigate the UK’s plans for incentivising shale gas production “if needed”, as more EU lawmakers and NGOs call for an EU state aid probe to be launched.
In a twitter exchange on 14 January, EurActiv asked Almunia whether the EU would launch an inquiry into the UK’s use of public funds for its shale gas plans, as the Green MEP Claude Turmes had requested earlier in the day.
“If needed, they will be investigated indeed,” Almunia replied.
His office later clarified that any investigation would hinge on an assessment that British plans to allow local councils to keep twice as much tax monies from shale gas production – and let shale gas firms pay half the going tax rate – broke EU rules.
“State aid is by definition a selective measure using a public resource to grant an advantage to a specific company or companies, that is different to general taxation measures,” an EU official explained.
The source agreed that the UK’s tax concessions were specific measures to advantage shale gas companies but said that the Commission would need to receive a notification, or make an assessment itself, before it could act.
Three MEPs contacted by EurActiv called for this to be initiated without delay. Jo Leinen (Socialists & Democrats), a former chair of Parliament’s environment committee, said that the British decision risked opening a ‘Pandora’s Box’ of conflict over state aid rules.
“I am sure there will be requests and complaints to the European Commission,” Leinen said. “The Commission is the guardian of European law and a rules-based functioning of our policy so I think that it should urgently analyse and intervene against this new subventing of fossil fuels.”
But the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change maintains that the council incentives announced by Prime Minister Cameron this week follow the letter of the law.
“A 100% business rate retention for shale gas operations does not affect the amount of money operators must pay, but means that local government retains this rather than passing it to central government,” a spokesperson told EurActiv. “It does not qualify as State Aid.”
Legal experts contacted by EurActiv were divided on the legality of the UK’s plans. “They sound problematic and merit further investigation,” one told EurActiv. “They seem to be a form of assistance but their exact contours are not clear and I would need to look into [it] to be confident that it was a violation of state aid rules.”
The Dutch MEP, Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy (Liberals), told EurActiv that the UK measures were “a classic example of environmentally damaging subsidies” that conflicted with British commitments in previous international fora to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.
“Local politicians should be very, very careful with these perverse incentives not to push away the [environmental] risks just because they see a lot of Pounds Sterling going into their pockets in the future,” he said.
“I am looking forward to any investigations into whether this could be considered state aid,” he continued. “I can imagine that it could be.”
Nuclear state aid inquiry
In December, the European Commission launched two investigations into the British government’s guaranteed power price for a nuclear plant in Hinkley, and the German government’s subsidies for renewable energy.
A public consultation is now underway on the issue, with a decision expected by the Commission in the Spring.
Luxembourg MEP Claude Turmes (Greens/EFA) told EurActiv that “it would be completely unfair and surprising if the Commission did not open such an investigation [into the UK’s shale gas subsidies] when it is also chasing renewable energy support schemes very vigorously.”
However, the UK is not the only EU state planning around a hole in public coffers left by the incentivisation of shale gas. Poland last year earmarked five billion zlotys(€1.2 billion) of public funds to aid the exploration and development of domestic shale gas production.
One Polish firm active in the field of unconventional gas, Orlen, says it needs public support to redress decades of financial aid to its competitors.
“Europe subsidises technologies endorsed as being ‘right’,” Jacek Krawiec, Orlen’s CEO told EurActiv in emailed comments. “There can be no revolution in energy when it is more profitable to invest in whatever is already enjoying the financial support of the authorities”.
He added: “Companies active in the EU already comply with national and EU environmental regulations which are much more restrictive than on the other side of the Atlantic, so they guarantee higher safety levels.”