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Will this be the last European Gas Conference?

This article first appeared in SocialEurope on 24 March 2023

Faced with an energy and cost-of-living crisis caused by Europe’s dependence on costly fossil gas, how are industry lobbyists, financiers and politicians responding? By meeting behind closed doors, beginning Monday, in Vienna to make sure the profits keep coming—while millions struggle to make ends meet.

But outside the European Gas Conference, where tickets can cost more than €5,000 and even the media are being kept away, climate and cost-of-living activists have other ideas. They are going to disrupt it in an act of mass civil disobedience.

Exclusive network

The annual three-day event is organised by the Energy Council, which markets itself as ‘The world’s most exclusive energy network’ of ‘senior upstream oil & gas executives’. The European Gas Conference is renowned as a place to make new deals—while drinking champagne: the four o’clock session on day one is billed as a liquid-natural-gas ‘Champagne Roundtable’. The likes of Shell, BP, RWE and OMV will be clinking glasses with financiers and politicians.

As well as ‘promoting dialogue between Europe and its main suppliers’, the conference aims to ‘diversify supply’ and ‘future-proof gas’ role in the energy mix’. To diversify from Russian pipeline gas in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, European governments have embarked on a mad trolley-dash for new fossil-gas sources and infrastructure, including import facilities. This though Europe’s planned capacity for LNG import terminals will ‘far exceed’ the continent’s demand for the fuel by 2030, according to new research. Monday afternoon will focus entirely on ‘accelerating infrastructure developments,’ bringing together senior executives from fossil-gas companies such as TotalEnergies and financial institutions such as BlackRock and ING.

The conference comes on the heels of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which declares this decade to be our ‘last chance’ to keep global temperatures to within 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. The United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, echoing the International Energy Agency, says this means no new licensing or funding of oil and gas projects—a message in stark contrast to the motives of the fossil-gas executives assembling in Vienna.

The anticipated deals represent a massive pay day for the gas industry, which has already seen record-breaking profits as a result of the energy crisis. In 2022 BP, Shell, TotalEnergies, Exxon and Chevron made almost $200 billion among them, putting more money into the pockets of shareholders than the tens of billions needed to cover the estimated economic losses from last year’s catastrophic floods in Pakistan.

Footing the bill

While banks and fossil-fuel companies rub their hands in glee, ultimately the public will foot the bill for this costly and unnecessary infrastructure—directly through taxes (much is built with public money) and indirectly from the gas industry passing on costs to consumers. And that is before we even get to the climate impacts of continued reliance on fossil gas.

Europe’s new, ‘diversified’ sources include fracked American gas and repressive regimes such as Israel, Egypt and Azerbaijan. Many are in Africa, which is being subjected to the latest ‘dash for gas’. In Mozambique people are already paying with their lives, as Eni, ExxonMobil and TotalEnergies lead the charge for new sources of LNG amid widespread human-rights abuses and militarisation in the north of the country. These tried-and-tested, neocolonial practices see profits and resources exported to Europe while the costs are borne locally—sacrificing lives, livelihoods and local environments in the name of European energy security.

Although the focus has been on fossil gas it is increasingly shifting towards hydrogen, to satisfy European, and particularly German, demand. But the hype around hydrogen as a ‘clean’ fuel is a Trojan horse to keep burning fossil gas: 99 per cent of hydrogen comes from fossil fuels, mainly gas. Even ‘green’ hydrogen, from renewable electricity, is increasingly responsible for land and resource grabs in the global south.

Day three in Vienna is officially the European Hydrogen Conference. Expect to see the Norwegian state-owned oil-and-gas company, Equinor, use its keynote address to rebrand fossil hydrogen as ‘clean’ (one of the perks of being a sponsor).

Buying access

With the top tickets selling at €5,099 for the three days, industry executives are literally buying access to power-brokers, political and financial. For that the organisers provide a concierge to aid introductions, as well as advanced access to the delegates list, and guarantee three pre-arranged meetings. Their website boasts of 100 private meetings due to take place during the conference, with many more informal conversations in the corridors assured. The event is private—this year even journalists are having their access revoked.

Unsurprisingly, most of Europe’s biggest oil and gas producers and their lobby groups are attending, including BP, Eni and the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP). These all sit on the European Union Energy Platform’s industry-only taskforce, advising the European Commission on new gas supplies and infrastructure needs. Thanks to their close relationship to the commission, many infrastructure projects once thought cancelled, due to the climate crisis, have been put back on the table.

For those looking for a higher profile and even greater access and influence, sponsorship of the event provides it. The Austrian utility OMV and its sister OMV Petrom are joined by a host of others, such as the Italian pipeline company Snam and the controversial Transadriatic Pipeline (TAP)—a project which faced resistance, from Greece to Italy, and saw growing militarisation as it was completed.

Fossil-gas executives will be joined by high-level decision-makers from the commission, Austria and Germany, as well as the United States Department of Energy. The EU’s Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators (ACER) is also moderating a panel. But should these public officials be there at all?

Averting climate chaos

While the cost of living is the top concern of 93 per cent of Europeans, according to the latest Eurobarometer, fossil-gas bosses have been actively lobbying against measures that would tackle the crisis and help avert climate chaos, because these would affect their unprecedented profits.

If we want to tackle both crises as well as move away from a neocolonial energy policy, then decision-makers must stop listening to the very industry that has caused the problem. More than 100,000 people have demanded the European Parliament kick fossil-fuel lobbyists out of politics, as happened to the tobacco industry—but their voices are not being heard.

While fossil-fuel executives, financiers and politicians plan to rub shoulders and toast champagne at the conference, hundreds of activists from around Europe intend to shut it down through mass civil disobedience. We also need an alternative future, beyond the grip of the fossil-gas lobby, which is the focus of a Power to the People counter-summit this weekend. Without disruption to the current system, however, this transformation is unlikely to happen. Hence the activists’ call to action: ‘Let’s show the corporations and lobbyists that continue to chain us to fossil gas that we will stop them from destroying our planet, robbing people of their livelihoods and taking countless lives across the Global South.’

This is the first time the Vienna conference has been targeted. But the activists have set a high bar: ‘Let’s make this European Gas Conference the last one!’

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