Dieter Helm: independent advice on the Energy Roadmap 2050?

There are mounting expectations for the Commission's Energy Roadmap 2050, which is due to be published tomorrow (Tuesday 13 December), bringing an end to months of intense lobbying, mostly from the big energy industry, notably gas, nuclear and oil. Though not an official policy document, the Roadmap will assess how the EU could reach a reduction of over 80% of its emissions by 2050 through different energy scenarios. This will of course have a substantial impact on future energy infrastructure and on the kind of subsidies available, with potentially lots of money at stake.

But Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) has found a number of reasons to be concerned about the independence of the advice being given to the Commission. An advisory group, appointed by the Commission to help with the development of the Energy Roadmap 2050, has been chaired by Oxford Professor Dieter Helm. CEO has been looking at his other occupations and activities (or at least trying to look, as it has all proved to be rather secretive), and has to ask whether Professor Helm’s advice can be considered truly independent?

Unfortunately it looks as if the Commission itself did not consider that question before appointing Helm as chair of the Energy Roadmap ad-hoc Advisory Group earlier this year, or indeed when he was appointed as Special Adviser to Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger in April 2011. Helm has often been accused of being a mouthpiece for industry: previously nuclear but more recently shale gas. And there have been consistent rumours that he is actually paid by several energy companies to promote their interests. CEO has written to the Commission to find out if Helm is indeed undertaking paid work, and if so, who for.

Given these concerns, surely the Commission would have carefully checked that his advice would not be liable to conflict of interests.

CEO has asked through the access to documents regulation for the paperwork concerning Helm’s appointment as chair of the Energy Roadmap advisory group. We have also asked for the minutes of the meetings of the group, which was scheduled to meet three times from May 2011 and produce a final report as input for the Roadmap. Six weeks later, we had only received an official response to say that there will be a delay in releasing these documents.

But back in July we also asked for information concerning the appointment of Dieter Helm as special adviser to Commissioner Oettinger to find out whether the Commission undertook adequate checks at this point for potential conflicts of interest.

From the few documents released, and these were only obtained following an appeal, it appears that Commissioner Oettinger signed the required Declaration of Assurance that Helm was free of conflicts of interests on 23 February 2011. Yet Helm only signed his declaration of activities on 27 February 2011. If this is correct, the Commission's seal of approval on Professor Helm is a breach of the Commission's obligations, casting doubt on the validity of Helm's appointment. This would not be the first time - the Commission was heavily criticised earlier this year by the European Ombudsman for exactly the same practice, in a case relating to then Commissioner Kuneva's special adviser Pat Cox.

But there is more. In Helm’s updated declaration of activities (dated 26 August 2011), Helm provides a long list of 'gainful activities'. These include being Professor of energy policy at Oxford University; Director of Helm Associated Ltd; Chair of the Energy Futures Group and the Cross Regulation Group; adviser to the Polish Presidency of the EU, and a member of the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change's advisory group.

But this list fails to provide the crucial information. Who are the clients of Helm Associated Ltd? Are there energy companies among these clients? What are the Energy Future Group and the Cross Regulation Group? What are their activities and who pays Helm to chair these groups? Is Helm lobbying or promoting particular interests in his roles as adviser to the Polish Presidency and the UK government? With this information missing it is impossible to conclude the absence of conflicts of interests.

It has proved impossible to answer these questions, as Helm’s activities appear to be rather secretive. Helm has his own website, but there is little or no publicly accessible information on Helm Associates or on the Energy Futures and Cross Regulation Groups. When contacted by CEO, these groups did not respond.

The Commission has been remarkable secretive too. They refused to disclose Helm's application to become Oettinger's special adviser, and they only released the contract between the Commission and Helm after CEO appealed. And they have redacted the figure he earns from the contract, using the argument that to release it would undermine his privacy rights - even though public funds foot the bill.

Helm's declaration of activities also mentions that he gives “presentations, advice and economic analysis on a technologically-neutral basis to governments and companies – primarily in the water, transport, communications and energy sectors, and infrastructure and finance.” For all these activities Helm explicitly affirms that “in all cases, lobbying or representing any private interests or promoting any specific technology is ruled out by contract or otherwise. Independence and impartiality are explicitly enforced”.

Not promoting any specific technology? A quick search in Google finds quite a few presentations and articles by Helm from recent months. They systematically promote the use of shale gas, which he promotes as 'the revolution' and preaches with a zealot's faith. And he does not miss a chance to undermine renewable energies either.

Has the Commission looked into this? Has someone bothered to check if Helm is not related in some undue way to shale gas interests or even on the pay roll of companies? And has the Commission complied with its broader duty of checking the potential conflict of interests which arise from Professor Helm's work through Helm Associated Ltd, the Energy Futures Group, the Cross Regulation Group, and any other advisory or presentation activities to governments and companies? Helm should make public his list of clients, to rule out any conflict of interests.

CEO has filed a complaint to Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič (inter-institutional relations and administration) raising these questions and others (25 October). The Commission was unable to answer within the normal three weeks deadline and we now expect a response on 22 December.

In the meantime, concerns about shale gas are growing. Evidence shows that shale gas causes severe water contamination, releases heavy metals, rips up landscapes and increases gas emissions. Shale gas was not on the EU’s energy agenda until very recently. A leaked draft of the Energy Roadmap 2050 from October suggests that gas will be a ‘bridging fuel’ during the 2030s, as advocated by Helm, whose main argument is based on the big shale gas reserves in Europe.

Once the Energy Roadmap is published, the Advisory Group headed by Helm, which is meeting today in Brussels, will close. But Helm will remain as Special Adviser to Commissioner Oettinger and the Commission should either demonstrate that there are no conflicts of interest or terminate the contract with Professor Helm.

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