Thursday

30th Mar 2017

Investigation

EU science director: My reshuffle during Dieselgate was ill-timed

  • The Joint Research Centre developed a portable emissions measurement system, which, De Santi said, 'is now being used everywhere in the world' (Photo: Peter Teffer)

One of the key experts on vehicle emissions said on Thursday (6 October) he was not removed from his post at the EU's science body against his will, but did say the timing was “quite strange”.

Giovanni De Santi had been director of the Institute for Energy and Transport, at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC), until 1 July this year.

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  • Giovanni De Santi has worked for the JRC since 1985, and was director of the Institute for Energy (later the Institute for Energy and Transport) from 2007 to July this year. (Photo: Dean Calma / IAEA)

As director, he oversaw the JRC's development of a system to measure passenger car emissions on the road.

He told EUobserver, and a small group of journalists, visiting the research institute in Ispra, in Italy, that the EU commission – of which the JRC is part – has the unwritten rule that directors need to move to another post “every six, seven, eight years”.

“I was already eight years, so I was ready and keen to rotate, no problem,” said De Santi, noting the discussion on a new post had started before the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal broke in September 2015.

But he noted that the announcement of his movement to a newly created post, director of the directorate-general Competences, could have come at a better time.

It was announced on 25 May, just over a month since the European Parliament's inquiry committee into the Dieselgate scandal began its work, and four months since the EU commission proposed greater EU oversight in the approval of new cars – oversight that for a large part would be carried out by the JRC.

“The only thing that I question myself was whether this could not have been interpreted in a negative way,” De Santi said about the reshuffle.

“You take away the most experienced director, in this moment. … This was my simple worry,” the civil servant said, adding that he enjoys his new “more strategic” post.

“For me personally it is positive, but you could give a false signal, also to the staff.”

Volkswagen scandal

The Joint Research Centre, which began almost sixty years ago as a nuclear research facility and now covers a whole range of research fields, came into the limelight, in Brussels, after the Volkswagen Group (VW) scandal erupted in the United States.

VW had fooled the test, and cars were emitting more in the real world than in the laboratory.

Many asked why the cheating had not been uncovered in the EU. The JRC had already in 2010 found that nitrogen oxide emissions in diesel cars were much higher on the road than in the lab.

“After November 2010, everybody knew it. It was not a secret. At scientific level there was crystal clear evidence that there was an enormous gap between what we measure in lab and what was the reality.”

But the intellectual leap was not made, that the cause of the gap may be cheating. Instead, JRC researchers set out to design a better test.

The Italian emissions expert said “retrospectively it's easy” to say the JRC should have been more curious, but he noted checking compliance of cars was “not our role”. National bodies are in charge of certification tests, called type approval.

So should the member state authorities have been more critical when they received the information in 2010 that the gap between test and real world was so high?

“This is their mandate. This is their mandate, of course.”

Market surveillance is 'failing'

He noted that market surveillance on cars, a member states' job, “is failing”, and that a “European approach” is needed.

But the JRC is not “the police”, he said.

“When we understood there was a problem, our first instinctive reaction was: how can we avoid it?,” said De Santi.

“Sorry to say, but the type approval type of work is a completely different job. Mentally, we are researchers, we are PhD students, so we are [looking at] the future. We were thinking: okay, we have identified this problem. How can we solve it?”

And the JRC did solve it. A new test that could measure emissions in the real world will be mandatory for new car approvals next September, something which De Santi says he is very proud of.

“Believe me, the portable emissions measurement system [PEMS] which has been developed here, is now being used everywhere in the world,” he noted.

“I signed a few weeks ago an agreement with China because China said: you have the most advance technology with PEMS, the Americans do not, and we would like to follow you.”

EU commission reshuffles car emissions expert

Move takes place amidst frustration with MEPs investigating dieselgate over lack of cooperation from the commission's in-house think tank. An interview was prevented from taking place.

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