The End of Gas Starts in Vienna – Leonor Canadas

Near the end of this month, from March 27 to 28, the European Gas Conference (EGC) organized by Energy Council takes place in Vienna. This conference brings together Europe’s main gas suppliers to discuss “the security of supply and the new role for LNG on the continent” and how to “diversify supply and decarbonize supply chains to future-proof gas’ role in the energy mix.”

Total, Equinor, BP, BlackRock, and RWE are just some of the companies who will be represented in Vienna. These are also some of the companies who have registered record profits over the last year, mostly due to skyrocketing gas and oil prices. These are some of the companies whose conscious actions have pushed millions into energy poverty this winter, while pushing us all to climate collapse.

After their windfall profits, both Shell and BP have announced that they are slowing their energy transition. British Petroleum (BP) for example, is planning to invest $8 billion of their profits in fossil fuels, while also reducing their carbon reduction targets from 40% to 20% by 2030.

While announcing new investments in fossil fuels to secure the interests of profit-eager shareholders, these companies are smart enough to understand that they also need to secure their control over the renewable sector, and take advantage of the funding opportunities for the energy transition. This demands some social and greenwashing from their side.

That is why they organize conferences like the one I attended last January. I will try to give you a glimpse of the narratives and discourses that they are putting forward that expose greenwashing for what it is.

The conference in January—titled “Just Transition for the Gas Sector and its Workers”—organized by EuroGas saw the expression “social dialogue” repeated over and over throughout. As an activist with the Climate Jobs campaign, I acknowledge that an urgent phase-out of fossil fuels (including “natural” gas) cannot be conducted without a concrete just transition plan for the workers of this sector. This phrase apparently held distinct meanings for different people at the conference.

When they talk about the transition not happening without “the workers,” they mean they need the right “skilled workforce,” implying the need of the sector to anticipate the challenges in employment, jobs, skills, and plans for the future.

On the one hand, the need for a “skilled workforce” does not translate into current workers being ensured requalification or income and job guarantees in the transition. We saw many situations of fossil infrastructure closing down due to loss of profitability, companies moving on to new projects–often both in renewables but also in fossils, relocating fossil industry elsewhere—and the workers being left behind with no compensation, jobs, or income guarantee.

On the other hand, when it comes to planning and preparing for a world beyond fossil fuels, a disproportionate emphasis was placed on the challenges of doing so in small and medium companies, compared to big enterprises being better equipped for this task. In other words, some of the speakers interpreted the transition as a way for big companies to consolidate their power over the energy sector.

First, a just energy transition to stop climate change requires economic planning and preparation. This process should have started decades ago but has been constantly postponed due to intense investment by fossil companies to deny the climate change crisis or offer false solutions under greenwashing schemes.

The much-needed economic planning cannot be left to profit-driven mechanisms. On the contrary, it must be conducted with great public scrutiny and accountability towards civil society, especially workers.

Second, an energy transition to stop further damage on the climate and ecosystems requires a shift from extraction-intense and endless-growth economic and energy systems, to an economy based on people’s needs and planetary boundaries. Private companies have, of course, a different view on this, resulting in an energy expansion—a growth in investment of both renewables and fossils—with greenhouse gas emissions still on the rise.

That is exactly why the Secretary General of Eurogas opened the conference by saying that “this is the beginning, not at all the end” and later said that “this is not a sunset sector.” They do have plans to keep the sun shining for themselves. As it was explained in the conference, “the technologies to decarbonize the gas sector have been identified” and they are: 1) hydrogen and 2) biogas (mainly bio methane).

The strategy to add value to the existing infrastructure, while having an excuse to expand it, is to use it for biogas, as it can be transported and distributed via existing gas grids. Currently, bio methane accounts for only 1% of the gas production in Europe. Hydrogen, which is more complicated to transport and store, is their plan to expand energy infrastructure and energy production, while also being able to get their hands on the renewable energy production. Keeping in mind that an overwhelming majority of hydrogen is today produced using gas, we understand that both of these strategies came hand-in-hand with the prospects of extending the use of “natural” fossil gas as far out as possible.

Third, there was a common agreement that this transition is not possible without public subsidies and workers. When it comes to the subsidies, RePowerEU, the Resilience and Recovery Funds and the Just Transition Funds are the major subsidy packages of the European Union. The Just Transition funds are a good example of how European public funding has been been used as a way for companies to close fossil infrastructure that is no longer profitable instead of the money being used to ensure a social plan for workers, and to guarantee and plan their access to jobs in the new sectors. As for the RePowerEU, there are plans for large sums being used to support gas production and distribution, using the energy crisis as an excuse to delay the phase-out of fossil fuels.

A way out of the energy crisis and toward energy security won’t be achieved, now nor in the long term, by investing in new “natural” gas infrastructure. There is no energy security in a world of climate chaos.

I would like to challenge the logic behind the mainstream discourse of public subsidies to support private investments, which then put workers in the hands of private companies’ profit-oriented decisions, and thus the social dialogue becomes a way to avoid social unrest rather than a condition for fund allocation.

When it comes to key sectors for the transition and sectors providing essential services and goods—with the energy sector playing both roles—their future and of its workforce should never be left in the hands of private investments. Public funding should be channeled to public services and creation of good jobs in the public sector.

Just Transition Plans should be designed by putting the workers and communities at the forefront of the discussions, and should never be based on the interests of the companies who have for decades prolonged and benefited with the burning of fossil fuels, while well aware of their impacts on climate and livelihoods. This demands a shift towards renewable energy systems that are publicly owned, democratically managed, and freed from the imperatives of profit and economic growth.

Lastly, the conference I attended was closed by the Secretary General of Eurogas, expressing that “there is no gas sector, there are gas people” and wondering “what is the best way forward for gas people.” Very well framed. I dare to suggest that the best way forward to the gas people is a planned phase-out of gas that guarantees 2024 is the last winter of gas. This plan should include massive public investment on the renewable sector, ensuring requalification and income guarantee for workers, and creating millions of Climate Jobs.

This is the plan to avoid cold houses in the winter and a burning planet in the future.

All of this proves why the climate justice movement needs to come together with other social movements—and specifically the labor movement—to create real social plans for a just energy transition. We need a strong program and a strong movement fighting for it, to make these industry conferences meaningless. That is also why we ought to come together from March 24 to 26 in Vienna, in the counter conference “Power to the People”—because we need to talk about how to make this the last winter of gas, and after that, blockade the European Gas Conference.

Article originally published in Common Dreams at the 18th of March, 2023.

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