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31. 8. 2008 18:43

Speech of the Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek on the Blede forum - Strategic Challenges of Climate Change and Energy Security 31. 8. 2008

Light or dark? Freedom or dependence? 

Europe is facing an energy shortage. Not today, perhaps, but most definitely tomorrow. My aim in making such a strong statement is not in any way to align myself with the dire predictions of the Club of Rome, the delusions of the Malthusian doomsters or the apocalyptic scenarios put forward by various environmental movements regarding imminent resource depletion. On the contrary. Potential resources are and will remain plentiful. Nevertheless, Europe is exposed to a – literally – gloomy scenario where you flick the switch and nothing happens. Not as a result of any hypothetical depletion of resources, but as a consequence of explicit erroneous recent and present policy-making, on account of the policy of appeasement, submission to the fad of ‘gamely combating’ global warming, and egotistical efforts running counter to nature and the world order. I would add that I do not call into question the validity of environmental protection.

In the absence of adequate energy resources, Europe is facing the prospect of dependence on volatile, despotic and expansionist suppliers and regimes. Europe, then, is at risk of losing or compromising its liberty. Incidentally, the relationship between energy and freedom was vividly described many years ago by the Russian academic Sakharov, who most assuredly knew what he was talking about. Are we capable of admitting this trend? Can we assess these threats properly? Are we in a position to confront these threats? Just what sort of energy policy does Europe have – is there any? How do we intend to make sure there is enough cheap, safe and – preferably – clean energy for us and the generations to come? Are we sufficiently conscious of all the energy challenges and, more importantly, the geopolitical, foreign-policy and security risks (most recently post-Georgia), and do we have our priorities right in this respect? I will try to answer these questions. It is up to you to decide to what extent your countries have found an answer to these issues and to what degree this is reflected in the European energy policy.

You may not be aware that I initially pursued a career as a power engineering specialist. But I am also a politician. While this situation makes my job easier in some respects, in others it is more complicated. It is easier in that I know what energy experts want from politicians. They want the same as anyone else – for politicians to keep their noses out of expert matters. On the other hand, my position is made more difficult by the knowledge that politicians need to keep energy experts on a short leash. Politicians cater to artificial environmental demand and are typically prisoners of populism and the pressure exerted by the green business brigade. Here, then, I will draw on my professional expertise while trying to keep my own leash as short as possible. The combination of these two professions gives me a better understanding of Sakharov and the relationship between energy and freedom. Or more precisely, in his concept, nuclear power and European freedom.

I will start with the policy on energy. Ostensibly we have such a concept. There is the energy and climate package, one of the fundamental components of the current EU agenda. This package is constantly being honed and supplemented. But isn’t something essential missing from it? Isn’t it missing an absolutely candid, unambiguous answer to the question: what will happen when you flick the switch? And what will happen in 10 years? 50 years?

I have an uncanny feeling that the whole of our European energy policy is built on the implicit assumption that ample energy is assured. And that all we have to do is set ambitious targets, regulate, cut emissions, increase the proportion of renewable sources, and so on and so forth. As both an energy specialist and a politician, I tell you that is na?ve, foolish and dangerous.

Has our energy concept taken on board the threat of rolling blackouts of the kind already witnessed in Europe? Our distribution networks are overloaded (although I should add that the Czech system still has sufficient capacity). Many European countries import electricity, primarily to meet their growing needs. But also as a consequence of wind plant outages. While these failures have been limited so far, the fact that the European networks are undersized means that, when they are joined up, we could see a knock-on effect, especially if we focus all our efforts on raising the share of renewable sources. And if we fail to remember that a general increase in installed capacity is essential to cope with energy consumption swelling even in the face of the need to make savings. Assuming, that is, that the standard of living will go up – energy consumption and the maturity of civilization are, despite any savings, in direct proportion. All savings do is reduce the angle of the growth line.

With this in mind, our energy concept requires a relatively fundamental review. Obviously, emission cuts and the search for savings and new resources must still be pursued. Along with new substitutes and technologies. However, it also needs to be stressed that ensuring our citizens have sufficient energy is highest on the agenda. We must transform this implicit assumption into an explicit commitment. It is all very well to set fixed targets for the share of renewable sources and for emission reductions up to 2050, but it would be more expedient to start by determining the basis of energy production that will be used to calculate these shares. The primary premise in our considerations, then, must be the safety, stability and long-term sustainability of supply.

This brings me to another issue: ensuring that sufficient resources are made available. We know that consumption is on the rise. In the Czech Republic, the conservative estimate (assuming 100% exploitation of the potential for savings and huge investment in renewable sources, and life under the thumb of the European Commission’s stark, stringent binding targets) puts this growth at one per cent per annum. For the time being, the Czech Republic is in a position to export electricity, but we too will be facing a power shortage after 2015. We are capable of calculating how long our fossil energy will last. Especially with regard to domestic coal reserves, as it would be suicidal to increase our reliance on Russian oil and gas, particularly in the wake of the events in Georgia. In my mind, the combination of the unjustified reduction in oil supply from the Russian Federation to my country, the airstrike against the pipeline during the Russian attack on Georgia, and the sabotaging of the Turkish pipeline by separatist rebels is no coincidence. I don’t believe in coincidences. We Czechs can point to Munich, the forcible secession of the Sudetenland, the Prague Spring, and the Russian – I beg your pardon, Soviet – occupation. When it comes to oil and gas, there are no coincidences.

My country is relatively rich in coal reserves. Nevertheless, there can be no disregarding the fact that any plan to expand mining operations is hampered by a serious political problem, in that we promised our citizens that we would respect binding coal-mining limits. There is also the environmental issue here that coal-fired power stations, no matter how clean, always generate emissions. This exerts positive pressure on clean coal technologies, gasification research, carbon storage, and so on.

We are mindful of the fact that renewable sources do not resolve the problem in most EU Member States. Czech potential in this field is not much more than ten per cent. So where does that leave us? Given the current state of technological progress and achievable natural resources, all we have is nuclear power. Cheap, safe, clean energy for thousands of years into the future. For me, nuclear power is the path of freedom and independence!

I am pleased to see that the EU’s nuclear taboo has been broken. That nuclear energy is now regarded as a prospective carbon-free, low-polluting source. That Bratislava and Prague take turns to host Nuclear Power Forums for unprejudiced debate on the pros and cons of this energy source. That the moratoriums imposed in various EU Member States are being reviewed.

That said, it will be a long time before the seeds of optimism can flower. The nuclear power industry has been devastated by years of political discrimination. Structural, technological and engineering capacities are lacking. We do not have enough specialists. After all, who would study a field in which there are no prospects? Also, the respite now afforded to nuclear power remains more or less on a verbal level. We are still in a situation where, every year, more reactors are being decommissioned than constructed in Europe.

I am convinced that in the EU we must count on nuclear power. Simply because there is no alternative. Unless we want to risk street riots when blackouts become the norm, when you flick the switch but remain in the dark.

The use of nuclear power dovetails with European values. It encourages freedom, because it provides us with independence. Unlike other sources, nuclear fuel can be imported from safe countries which also happen to be our allies.

Nuclear energy is consistent with the principle of consideration for the environment. A normal power station with a capacity of 1,000 MW consumes approximately two millions tonnes of coal, or oil, in a year. To produce the same amount of power from biomass we would have to consume short rotation coppice from an area of close to 300,000 hectares (equal to a tenth of all arable land in the Czech Republic). Or we can extract a mere 28 tonnes uranium ore from the ground.

Give me a choice between the different sources of energy and as a civilized person I will opt for the one which best exploits the potential concealed in its matter. Until we have controlled thermonuclear reactors, that choice will obviously fall on nuclear power. I am not into burning bushes.

If we accept nuclear power into the fold as a key element of the energy mix, we will guarantee citizens ample cheap energy for many years to come. And we will smooth the way for our other priorities: emission reductions and greater energy security.

This brings me at last, but not finally, to the third issue, which relates to risk and priorities: the safety and sustainability of the energy industry. This is also one of the themes we would like to place firmly on the EU agenda when we hold the presidency.

It is a long-accepted truth that Europe has an unhealthy dependence on supplies of energy-producing materials from Russia and the Middle East. The latter is a volatile region. Moscow, for its part, takes delight in playing – on an increasingly frequent scale – the energy card and exploiting oil and gas as a tool in its superpower, neo-imperial aspirations.

This, incidentally, reveals another of the cracks in the European energy policy: the attempt to apply the electricity distribution template to the management of gas distribution. Whereas electricity is a commodity obtained from numerous sources and can be transmitted to the customer in many ways, gas can come from only a handful of potential suppliers, and you can take your pick of one – or two at most – gas pipelines. Pushing for ownership unbundling as originally proposed can only mean one thing: not more freedom for customers, but greater dependence on the Russian state-controlled gas monopoly. In all probability, this juggernaut would take over definitive control of those few distribution routes. This may already have happened. And I am not being hysterical.

So far, we have seen several situations where the flow from the taps has deliberately been reduced to a trickle as a warning to one country or other. The Georgia case, however, has set a dangerous precedent. It shows that Russia will stop at nothing – including military action – to achieve and consolidate its energy monopoly. We will discuss the Georgia issue in more detail tomorrow; energy clearly isn’t the sole reason for Russia’s response to the Georgian–Ossetian conflict. Nevertheless, it is manifestly obvious that the efforts geared towards the secession of Abkhazia from Georgia pursue a clear objective: to take hold of a strategic territory through which Caspian oil and gas flows to the whole of Europe.

Our worst fears are materializing here. Clearly, it is in our common interest to finally reach a consensus on the European position towards Russia. The events unfolding in Georgia are, in part, a test of the EU’s integrity, capacity for action and unity. Any separate attempts to secure national supplies, so far generally made by numerous countries on the basis of agreements with Russia, consequently compromise the security of the Community as a whole. This also underscores the fact that energy security is linked to security in general.

The best policy to safeguard the stability and security of supply is a policy leading to stability and peace across the world. Our absolute priority in the context of the EU’s external policy must be to find stability. Once again, the significance of transatlantic ties is borne out. Our economic and political interests are identical to those of the US and Canada. Our ability to ensure the prosperity and safety of our citizens, as well as to improve life and secure peace elsewhere, is closely linked to the existence of adequate energy. At the same time, the hunger for energy-producing materials is rising unabated. Countries that used to be net exporters are becoming importers – China, India, Indonesia and Brazil. This is a total population running into billions of people. And pressure on market monopolization is increasing. There has been speculation that a gas organization along the lines of OPEC will be formed, incorporating countries such as Russia, Iran, and Venezuela…

All these trends are a sign that we need to coordinate our approach. We need to look for a way to cut our dependence on regions that cannot be trusted. One possible solution, as I have mentioned, is nuclear power. Others could be innovation and quests for new technologies. Nevertheless, these are prospects for the near or more distant future. Here and now, we are faced with the issue of finding a political solution. A solution that will counter the imminent security and energy crisis. I believe that the EU, in liaison with the US and Canada, has the potential to deal with these threats effectively.

I know that, in my direct and indirect answers to the questions I tabled, I have created further new question marks that we will not be able to discuss today. They are wide of this conference’s objective. I do not in any way want to raise the spectre of the apocalypse I warned against in my introduction. It is not my intention to increase tension between Russia and the EU. There is enough of that already. I have simply tried to place a relatively wide European debate into a broader context and force us all to think about climate changes and energy security from a rather different perspective than is usual for standard European discussion. I am using one of the last opportunities before the Czech Presidency to present my true opinion, undistorted by the duties of a moderator and compromiser. It is an eminently Czech and – as I have attempted to imply – European interest to move our discussion from artificial problems to real problems, to bring us from climate dogma back down to earth and its more worldly problems. So, in the future, what will happen when we flick that switch? Light or dark? Freedom or dependence?

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