In yesterday's hearing, several MEPs grilled Energy Commissioner designate Günther Öttinger about his close ties with German energy companies.
Claude Turmes (Greens, LU) put the spotlight on Öttinger's close personal relationships with Wulf Bernotat and Jürgen Großman, the chief executives of energy giants E.ON and RWE. Would Öttinger stand up against Bernotat in WWF's legal complaint over a new RWE coal plant in Mannheim? How would he handle possible infringement procedures against Amprion? RWE created this “independent” network operator in order to comply with EU rules, but remains involved in Amprion as Großman is chair of its supervisory board. Could Öttinger give an assurance that EU energy policy will not be decided during the regular card nights he has with his big energy friends?
Marita Ulvskog (S&D, SE) took a similar line, worrying whether Öttinger would not be “partisan” and favour nuclear energy as well as major energy companies.
Obviously, Öttinger had prepared carefully for these questions. He stated that he had no shares in energy companies EWF, EnBW, E.ON, RWE or Vattenfall. He clarified that he had only played skat with RWE's Großman once – during a public benefit event. He assured MEPs that special and in particular economic interests wouldn't be at the centre of his work, but that he would keep close contact with all stakeholders. And he invited MEPs to check whether he kept this promise.
Remarkably, Öttinger praised the Commission for dealing more strictly with conflicts of interests and independence than any other organ he knew. But the controversy around Bulgarian designate Commissioner Jeleva indicates that the Commission fails to do serious, pro-active screening of conflicts of interest.
Despite Öttingers assurances, several other replies he made during the hearing should be reason for concern. He was cautious about splitting energy oligopolies through the so-called unbundling policy of separating production and supply from the transmission networks. This had been initiated by his predecessor and had encountered fierce opposition from German and French energy companies. And when describing his vision of a low-carbon economy, he voiced support for the contentious carbon capture and storage technology as a means to pave the way for the use of coal.
It remains to be seen whether Öttinger will manage to keep the distance from the energy giants that is needed to promote a green, safe and socially responsible energy future.