Monday

18th Jan 2021

Interview

Why a solar power lobbyist joined a fossil fuel club

  • Lobbyist Watson: 'I believe what I'm saying. You can't just put money in my pocket and tell me to say something - it doesn't work.' (Photo: Peter Teffer)

James Watson lobbied the EU institutions to increase support for solar power for four and a half years - but now, since the start of this year, he is the secretary general of Eurogas - a Brussels-based gas lobby club.

Eurogas represents 44 companies and other associations involved in distribution, retail, and wholesale of gas in Europe, including fossil fuel giants like Eni, Shell, and Total.

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  • Those in favour of an alliance between solar power and gas argue that 'power-to-gas' could solve the storage problem of renewable energy (Photo: European Parliament)

Why does an advocate for renewable energy move to an organisation whose members are by and large still making money with climate-damaging fossil fuels?

"The answer is quite easy. The reality is that I take the view that gas is going to be a very important fuel for the future," Watson told EUobserver in an interview.

"I've come here because I believe we are at the start of an important journey, where we are going to decarbonise gas," he said.

Watson admitted that at the moment 96 percent of Europe's gas is still natural gas - a fossil fuel which emits heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) - and only four percent biogas.

But the UK-born lobbyist said he believed the sector wanted to become more climate-friendly.

"I'm not coming here to speak against renewables, I'm coming here to promote them," said Watson

"Yes, of course there is that fossil fuel element of what we do today. But on the other side, there is the whole potential of what we will achieve in the future," he said.

"It is important that somebody like me gets the opportunity to try and steer the boat in that direction, because of the convictions I have about renewables and decarbonisation," he said.

The idea is that electricity generated via solar panels can be gasified, so that it can be stored for periods when the sun is not shining.

"I don't feel there is any inconsistency with what I've done before and what I'm doing now," he said.

But environmental lobby groups and the campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory see something nefarious in increasingly closer ties between the gas sector and renewable energy.

Corporate Europe Observatory described in a 2017 report how the gas sector spent over €100m in lobbying activities in Brussels the preceding year.

The report also highlighted what the group called the "takeover of the renewable energy lobby".

"The gas industry benefits vastly from being seen as a companion fuel with renewable energy," the report said, noting that pro-gas elements had "infiltrated" some renewables lobby groups.

It also mentioned Watson by name, as well as his association with PR company Weber Shandwick.

Meanwhile, another Corporate Europe Observatory paper, from November last year, dismissed the drive to renewable gas as an "underhand ploy to keep the EU hooked on ordinary fossil gas and the industry in business", and again referred to Watson.

"Expect the trade association [Eurogas] to go even bigger on renewable gas from now on, as their incoming secretary general James Watson comes from solar trade association SolarPower Europe, and was previously a director with lobby consultancy Weber Shandwick who masterminded the gas-renewables lobbying alliance as early as 2011," the report said.

No conspiracy

Watson chuckled when the quote was read to him.

"Masterminded? I don't think I masterminded anything to be honest," he said.

"Yes, as a consultant I worked in the energy team, we did work with GasNaturally [another Brussels-based gas lobby organisation]. To be honest, it was an account that I had amongst many other accounts," he said.

Watson confirmed that in his time as a consultant, he accompanied GasNaturally to meet with SolarPower Europe, when it was still called the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA).

"That's actually how EPIA got to know me," he said.

"[The meetings took place] to talk to them about the balancing opportunities between variable renewables and flexible gas. We only had a couple of meetings. I don't think there was anything that was ever concretely done around that", he said.

"The idea that there was some kind of grand masterplan going on is just more of a kind of conspiracy theory than fact," he said.

Watson noted that as a consultant he also worked for clients involved in solar power.

'Not about money'

At the head of SolarPower Europe since mid-2014, Watson then got to know the energy sector well.

"That's also facilitated the kind of persona that I've grown, if you like, over the past ten years, with this positive view about the role of gas as a potential decarbonising factor," he said.

"[That] has kind of led me here, I suppose. I wouldn't say there is a particular strong line. It's just the way that things have unfolded. I suppose I've been lucky," he said.

Watson said the move from SolarPower Europe to Eurogas was "not about money", and that he could only work for lobby organisations that are in line with his personal views.

"I really do have a strong view on the environment - I think we have to do everything we can to protect it," said Watson, who holds a PhD in environmental law.

"I've been fortunate because I have a vision. I think I express it well in interviews with companies. I think that's why people like me to work for them," he said.

"What makes me different is that I believe what I'm saying. You can't just put money in my pocket and tell me to say something - it doesn't work. You have to have the convictions," he noted.

Thank you for lobbying

Watson also stressed that actual lobbying is not like how it is cynically portrayed in the 2005 film Thank you for smoking.

"It's often about providing important information that [policymakers] might not have access to because sometimes reports are very expensive," he said.

Watson's lobbying strategy is to speak to as many people as possible, from the policy officer through the highest civil servants known as directors-general, to the politically responsible EU commissioners.

"Because in the end policy officers [are] the ones [where] the paper lands: 'this is an idea that has come to us, you have to write something about it'," he said.

"Well, you better talk to them about how you see things, especially when you are talking about prosumers, self-consumption, power-to-gas, all this sort of thing, the industry tends to have a broader knowledge than the policymakers," Watson added.

The tiny EU commission?

In that respect, it is important to note that the European Commission, which drafts all EU law and is also in charge of making sure member states carry out legislation, has limited staff.

According to the commission's most recent figures, the Brussels-based EU executive has a total staff of around 32,000.

"It's tiny," said Watson.

The directorates-general for energy and climate action have 584 and 180 people respectively, including temporary staff.

"I think it is inevitable that they also look outside for external support, not just from lobbyists, but also from think tanks, from universities," said Watson.

"I don't think they have any choice. They simply don't have the resources to behave like a national government," he added.

"In a way, they are deliberately kept that way I think, by the national governments, because it's a way of balancing the power between Brussels and the member states."

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