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20th Apr 2019

Investigation

Dieselgate 'omerta' banned EU experts from speaking to press

  • A car being equipped with a portable emissions measurement system at the EU's Joint Research Centre. (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Scientists working for the emissions laboratory at the EU's Joint Research Centre (JRC) were not allowed to discuss Dieselgate with the press, two anonymous sources close to the institute told EUobserver.

"When the scandal broke, there was an omerta within the JRC," one of the sources said. "No one was allowed to answer questions from journalists."

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Two years ago on Monday (18 September), US authorities announced that Volkswagen had equipped diesel vehicles with software that allowed them to recognise when they were being assessed in a laboratory and switch to a cleaner mode during tests. Of the 11 million affected cars worldwide, 8.5 million were sold in Europe.

The scandal put a spotlight on the JRC, which has a world renowned vehicle emissions testing facility.

The JRC had published reports outlining the risk of the use of cheating software - so-called defeat devices - in 2011 and 2013.

It later emerged that JRC staff had found suspiciously high emissions levels, long before the Dieselgate scandal had become public. Top EU officials told the European Parliament that these signals never reached them.

Scientists are 'subordinates'

When looking back on the months after the scandal broke, the two sources described a "tense" atmosphere.

"What I learned [after Dieselgate] was that this is not like a university with full freedom of research, but a hierarchical government organisation, where one needs to be able to follow orders," one source said, adding that JRC employees are "subordinates".

It is not entirely clear if the ban on speaking to the press came from JRC's director, or from higher up in the European Commission, in Brussels.

However, the omerta did have a chilling effect on some scientific research.

At least one scientist was unsure if he was allowed to share emissions data with his colleagues, and did so without informing his superiors. However, the sources also noted that there was no censorship.

Mandate

During a hearing at the EU parliament, one JRC official explained that they never investigated further into the discrepancy between nitrogen oxide emissions on the road and in the lab, because it didn't have the mandate.

The two anonymous sources said that the mandate plays an important part in the JRC's daily work, and a desire to please the EU commission, of which the JRC is a directorate-general.

One of them said that the JRC lacked "an encouraging atmosphere to do thorough research" beyond its mandate.

The JRC was never responsible for checking whether automakers were cheating on emissions tests, because EU member states never relinquished that power to the EU level.

Last year, MEPs in the parliament's inquiry committee into the scandal criticised the JRC practice of only publishing anonymous data on suspicious cars, making it difficult for the responsible national authorities to follow up.

But one of the sources noted that he was "not aware that there was a barrier between type approval authorities and the JRC".

The JRC "had never received a request from the [German type approval authority] KBA to share data," the contact said.

EU legislators are currently negotiating on a piece of legislation that would give JRC the power to investigate emissions as an additional check to the national authorities' work.

But one of the anonymous sources noted that while the JRC has the technical capabilities to carry out such checks, it still is part of the EU commission.

"And the European Commission is a political organisation. There will always be the risk of political influence."

EU commission appeals Dieselgate ruling

The Court of Justice of the EU annulled legislation which relaxed toxic emission limits for cars. EU commissioner Bienkowska said the commission will appeal.

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