Major oil companies blast EU focus on electric vehicles amid energy crisis

A planned EU ban on the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles, expected to come into force in 2035, will create economic and social risks for Europe at a time of high geopolitical uncertainty, a coalition of fuel manufacturers has told European policymakers.

In a joint letter, they urge policymakers to reconsider their push for full electrification of new cars by 2035, arguing that world events necessitate a different approach.

“Since the publication of the Commission’s proposal for CO2 standards in cars and vans in July 2021, the geopolitical landscape has changed dramatically, with implications for energy and raw material dependencies,” states the letter.

“This is likely to have an impact on the speed and economic efficiency of the electrification of the new light duty vehicles fleet,” it continues.

The letter is signed by a wide range of organisations related to the fuel sector, including biofuel trade associations and FuelsEurope, which represents big oil companies like Shell, TotalEnergies, BP and ENI. It also includes Japanese carmaker Mazda and CLEPA, the European association of automotive parts suppliers.

“We all fully support that electrification will be the major technology for light road transport decarbonisation. However, recent geopolitical developments have underlined the uncertainties related to the pathway to full electrification of new cars by 2035,” they warn.

The high cost of raw materials necessary for the production of batteries, such as nickel, lithium, and cobalt, and the EU’s dependency on third countries for these resources, are highlighted in the letter as threats to the affordability of electric vehicles.

The lack of charging infrastructure to support the switch to electric vehicles, a long-standing criticism of the auto sector and fuels industry, is also put forward as a risk factor that “creates uncertainty” for potential EV customers.

It is additionally alleged that the greenhouse gas intensity of the EU’s electricity supply could decrease the emissions savings from electric vehicles, as member states look to carbon-heavy energy sources to make up the shortfall from banned Russian gas.

“There is no guarantee that we will have sufficient renewable electricity to satisfy the increasing demand from electrified transport, with the risk that marginal electricity consumption may even come from coal,” states the letter.

“The current vehicle standards, based solely on the tailpipe emissions, does nothing to prevent this, to the detriment of the overall GHG emissions reduction.”

While charging with electricity from coal does diminish the eco-credentials of EVs, research by the clean mobility NGO Transport & Environment found that even on carbon intensive grids such as Poland, electric cars are around 30% cleaner than diesel and petrol vehicles.

Signatories are not calling for a return to fossil fuels, but rather want EU policymakers to recognise the potential of biofuels and green hydrogen-derived synthetic fuels to decarbonise the road sector.

These low-carbon liquid fuels should “complement” the electrification strategy, the letter states.

Alternative liquid fuels are compatible with the EU’s goal of a climate neutral transport sector, said Marko Janhunen, chair of the Advanced Biofuels Coalition, a signatory of the joint letter.

“We need significant investments in such fuels not only to fuel the hard-to-decarbonise transport but also to fuel the legacy fleet of tens of millions of cars for decades,” he told EURACTIV.

“Current geopolitical events underline the need for diversification of energy sources,” he added.

Negotiations are currently underway between EU member states, the European Parliament, and the European Commission to finalise legislation that will enshrine into law the permissible CO2 emissions from cars and vans.

While both the European Parliament and Council have agreed in principle to the Commission’s suggestion of a zero-emission limit on the sale of cars from 2035, there is discord over the role alternative fuels should play.

A clause inserted by EU member states, who met at the EU’s Environment Council in June, obliges the European Commission to prepare a report by 2026 that looks into technologies such as “plug-in hybrids” and “CO2 neutral fuels”.

This report must take into account “technological developments, including as regards plug-in hybrid technologies,” says the Council text, agreed on 30 June by the EU’s 27 environment ministers.

A paragraph inserted into the preamble of the agreement provides further leeway:

“Following consultation with stakeholders, the Commission will make a proposal for registering after 2035 vehicles running exclusively on CO2 neutral fuels in conformity with EU law, outside the scope of the fleet standards, and in conformity with the Union’s climate neutrality objective.”

The joint letter urges policymakers to shift this paragraph into the articles of agreement, making it a legally binding part of the final legislation.

In remains to be seen if European Parliament negotiators, who tend to be more sceptical towards alternative fuels as a means to decarbonise passenger cars, will accept the Council’s position.