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From Gazprom Consultant to Belgian Energy Minister

Marco Visscher

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Dr. Chris Keefer  0:00  

Welcome back to Decouple. Today I'm joined by Marco Visscher, a freelance writer and editor from the Netherlands. He has co authored two books Ecomodernism, a book introducing Ecomodernist ideas to a Dutch audience and the end of the transit to the energy transition. He's currently working on a book about nuclear energy as well. Mark, you're also a fellow podcaster, the host of studio Ecomodernism with a large audience in Netherlands and Belgium. After butchering some Dutch there, I'm going to just ask you straight up you had Mitchell.

Marco Visscher  0:31  

Ah, Chris, that's good. Okay. Thank you.

Dr. Chris Keefer  0:37  

Welcome aboard. I spent a little bit of time and Netherlands many years ago. And there's a few words I really liked. One of them was binder costs, which is peanut butter. Anyway, it's one of the things that stick with you over the years. But we have we have some kind of serious matters to discuss. And, you know, your work caught my eye, we'd had a little discussion offline, because you've been digging around looking a little bit at, I guess, what's going on in Belgium, looking at this sort of maybe revolving door between politics and certain nefarious energy companies, or at least fossil fuel energy companies, and their influence on European energy policy with regard to nuclear, I guess, also fracking as well. You know, I've just been following along a little bit, what's been going on with Gerhard Schroder former chancellor in Germany, who went on to be a manager of the Nord Stream two board, nominated for the board of Gazprom in February of 2020. To bad timing, apparently, his entire staff just resigned. He's been expelled from his political party, honorary citizenship of his hometown handlebar has been revoked. These are interesting times we're focusing on on Belgium. And there are you know, I've heard a certain, I don't want to call them conspiracy theories, but I've heard certain allegations that, you know, Gazprom has been funding environmental groups in the EU. I don't know if we have evidence on that. But, you know, I've been sort of calling it I guess, more of the banality of, of climate hypocrisy building off of, you know, Hannah Arendt work on the banality of evil here. But the story in some ways, I think, is at least the ones that are easily traceable, or are accessible to journalists and researchers, like yourself are sometimes quite banal. So I think that's what we're here to discuss today. The interesting case of the Belgian energy minister, tin vendor, that vendor Stratton, I have robbed you of your chance for your self introduction, though. So let's let's make sure we tick that box. You don't get off easy. Tell us a bit more about yourself, Marco.

Marco Visscher  2:33  

Sure. So I'm a journalist and editor in in the Netherlands. I used to work for, I guess, an alternative magazine. I wrote a lot about sustainability. Anything Green was you know, like this big hooray. Story in our magazine, and I got a little bit more critical over time, I guess. learned about the breakthrough Institute and Ecomodernism when it was still I think the word Ecomodernism was just coined by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. I got more interested than back home in the Netherlands, I wanted to do more with Ecomodernism co authored this book you just mentioned, and I guess I just like to write books and edit stuff. And if I didn't, didn't like that so much. I guess I would be like a professional magician, though. I don't know that many tricks yet. And I'm here in Rotterdam with my wife and our three kids. In the Netherlands, there's one of the brave countries that just decided to actually start building nuclear power plants.

Dr. Chris Keefer  3:41  

Right. I mean, what a sea change we're seeing in Europe right now I've been following. I mean, certainly France's announcement, and that that runoff election now we're looks like 72% of the country has voted for candidates who are very much in favor of nuclear energy. Were in the UK, they're starting sounds like some kind of a state run vehicle to facilitate the building of eight nuclear reactors building one per year instead of one per decade as the sort of slogan. And you're mentioning Yeah, I mean, Netherlands, there's, there's other committed plans now to get building something.

Marco Visscher  4:12  

Yeah, the cabinet was formed in December. And part of it is to prepare the building the construction of a nuclear power plant. Now, this will take many, many years, of course, for all the permissions to get arranged. But still, it's it's a step beyond let's Research Nuclear. The point has now been made, yeah, actually started building.

Dr. Chris Keefer  4:37  

And it's interesting as well, when the rubber meets the road when there's, you know, a OPEC energy crisis. governments and industry come together to figure out how to make this happen. I mean, energy is just so critical. And you know, with not just the energy crisis, but the Russian aggression in Ukraine, and I guess the European Council is imperative to get itself off of Russian fossil fuels. In five years, I mean, it is interesting things that we did not think were possible or imaginable. I mean, a conservative government in the UK, saying we're going to create some kind of a state enterprise. And the details are still very hazy on this. But, you know, for me, that's, that's kind of shocking this, you know, the birthplace of electricity deregulation is, you know, got the renewable asset based financing model back and is really looking at, you know, a role for the state in terms of stewarding along a sector that's vital for energy security and for climate, etc. So, you know, who knows, who knows how fast things can move along, when when there's actually an urgency, we would have thought climate would be that urgency, but often as much more pragmatic things like, you know, a dictator invading a country and threatening, yeah,

Marco Visscher  5:46  

yeah. And there's liberalisation of the energy market, I guess that was from the 90s. Also in Europe, like nothing much has changed right in the energy mix, since that decision to liberalize it. And in a liberalized market, it's just very hard to get nuclear off the ground, I guess. It's much cheaper, of course, to construct wind and solar. And just keep going on with fossil fuels. So yeah, it would be good government's stepping in a bit more here. Yep.

Dr. Chris Keefer  6:16  

So I mean, Belgium is one of the places where there's pretty extraordinary news coming out. I mean, they haven't announced the full reversal of their plan to shut down all seven of the reactors and 50% of their electricity generation. They've backtracked on that, not again, because of climate, which they proclaim to be so concerned about. But because of, you know, the price shocks of the energy crisis and the Russian aggression in Ukraine, but two reactors are, are going to be delayed, at least in their in their closure. But let's, let's say in either in 10 years, okay, yeah. And who knows what happens after that? We'll see, right. But we did talk to Rob De Schutter. Many months now about the situation in Belgium. But let's let's kind of flesh that out a little bit more. And let's introduce this, this character 10, vendor, vendor Stratton, to understand that context of that that partial reversal. And I guess, just to get a better sense, again, of that sort of banality of hypocrisy when it comes to when it comes to climate, you know, and this attempt to shut down nuclear and replace it with gas,

Marco Visscher  7:21  

tender for the star that she came to the oil to the public. I will say he got up, she became a public figure, I guess in 2003. This was after the greens were part of the cabinet. In, in Belgium. This was when so when the greens were in the government around 2000, they arranged his nuclear phase out, including a constitutional ban on constructing new nuclear power plants for electricity production. But then elections came 2003 and the Green Party got smashed, I guess is the word right? They were down very, very low. So they had to start a renewal. Tina was one of the young new, right faces of the Green Party. And in 2007, she became elected and a member of parliament. And she left early in 2010, I think, and started her law firm serving clients in the energy sector and petrochemicals, I believe. And this was a small law firm, right? It's called Blixt. She worked with a partner Tim firmare. Tim used to work for wind gas, which is a subsidiary for Gazprom. Right. And I think he worked for ENI Eni, right one of the largest oil and gas companies. And, you know, with their law firm, I guess they serve many clients in the energy sector. Meanwhile, dinner being a known politician and a face of the Green Party, even though she left she got you know, interviewed in, in the media and newspapers, she wrote op ed pieces. And and she would be saying things like where I have it here. So she would be talking about the very big, big problems when nuclear power plants would shut down, she would say, all energy production from renewables fluctuates all the time. And natural gas can work quickly and nicely along with solar and wind, you know, ramping up and down as the weather changes. Let's see in another interview are up at sea would applaud the government for ordering natural gas plants. She would always say oh, it's only A couple gas plants, right there only temporarily. It's just an intermediate step, or like a bridge or transition. But you know, what does that mean? Like everything is temporarily Right, right everything in life? Yeah,

Dr. Chris Keefer  10:16  

it's so interesting because I think across the world, you see this up until probably around 2010 2012, maybe up until fracking really took off. Natural gas was really, really popular, you know, as a as a, quote unquote transition fuel as a sort of partial climate solution. And around the world, from what I'm seeing green groups were taking considerable money from, from the natural gas sector partnering with, you know, my country, Sun Corp, and bridge, gas, other groups. But you may see this in the States as well, where Sierra Club took a very large and multimillion dollar donation from several gas companies. And when I'm confronted, you know, anti nuclear activists hear about their past of taking gas, they say, well, listen, I mean, everyone was doing it, then. I mean, you know, you have to understand the Situation's changed. And it's just, it is pretty extraordinary. I mean, thank God. Finally, there's some chutzpah hear this, people are starting to wake up to this, but maybe not. I mean, yeah.

Marco Visscher  11:19  

Again, I mean, we should be. Let's look at this from a different perspective. I guess. So are you familiar with the Effective Altruism movement? You know, trying to do most good with limited resources, right? I'm familiar with this work of the pragmatic, vegan. And so if there's a dilemma, I don't, I don't eat meat. And but if a meat company would offer me a million dollars to spend on animal welfare organization, for eating a burger, I would eat that burger and then donate 1 million, right? So I mean, I can imagine green groups would accept money from the natural gas company. I mean, they've got lots of money. So why don't we take it? And we'll spend it on the stuff that we enjoy. So I mean, it's not so much that they're being bribed. I think it's just that their solution, solar and wind is very much dependent on natural gas. So it fits the green agenda, in a way fits the fossil fuels agenda. And that's, I think, the more interesting story actually

Dr. Chris Keefer  12:28  

for and I don't mean to, I think it's very uninteresting when you character tries, you know, your opponents or character tries anyone really, right. It's far more fascinating what you just did there, where you try and get into the psychology and you know, how people kind of wrestle with these moral questions and come out feeling right about the things that they do. I mean, human beings, that's just I think fundamental to our psychology is we always have to justify and see ourselves in a good light and is doing something positive. And what's interesting is that story, we tell ourselves that justification, so I love it. I love it carry on carry on.

Marco Visscher  13:00  

Well, let me just say, justification that that's eventually what happens, right? If you're, if you're so much against nuclear power, ultimately, you end up justifying the use of fossil fuels, right? This is, this is what happens because when nuclear power plants shut down, they will be replaced by fossil fuel plants, usually natural gas plants. So it's happens all the time. Shall I? Shall I go further with 10? off on the status? Bio? Yeah. So because it was 2019, I think when she returned in politics, so she stopped her work for, you know, this Blixt law firm. She came into the parliament, and then the next year with after elections, she became the Minister for energy. As a member of parliament, she arranged what's the word, I guess, a support mechanism, like 350 million euros, I think, for the construction of natural gas plants, because they were needed for the rationale for nuclear power plants to shut down that had to be one of the conditions was that the electricity supply would not be endangered. And that's why you need natural gas plants. Right. So that's what's what she arranged as a member of parliament. And then as a minister, she went to the European Commission asking for subsidies to actually start building these nuclear Oh, sorry, the natural gas plants. Now, all this looks a bit suspicious, right? And I'm seeing these kinds of articles actually, Michael Shellenberger our mutual friend wrote about this as well and it is enough, you know, to raise eyebrows, I guess. But does this mean tennis on a staffer was a lobbyist that she was paid by the fossil fuel industry to to make her point? I don't know. I guess he was, you know, as a law as a lawyer. He was probably working for some of the fossil fuel companies, we don't really know. Because they're it's not disclosed. They don't need to disclose it. I guess it would be bad for competition, right? If you if you list all the companies you work for, it would be very easy for a competing law firm to pick up the phone and make a better deal. So we don't know for sure.

Dr. Chris Keefer  15:20  

We do know that when gas we did have work for, for this company, Blackstone, the Gazprom subsidiary? Well,

Marco Visscher  15:26  

I think I think so Tim firmare. This was the one partner that Tina was working with. He used to work for wind gas, he's saying that on his own website. And, you know, just being proud of it, I guess, because it's very much part of the bio. Sim Samir has a profile that's a bit less public, I think. But he's written a few op eds as well, like saying, we need to invest in new natural gas plants, saying subsidies will be needed, praising the government for building natural gas plants. He would even say, natural gas plants are clean, efficient and flexible. Now that's what a lobbyist would say, Right? Is he a lobbyist is 10 a lobbyist? I don't want to go that far. But I think an Anti-nuclear stance ultimately makes you sound like your, your, your fossil fuels industry's little helper in a way, right.

Dr. Chris Keefer  16:29  

In terms of asking for the subsidies from the EU to build gas plants in Belgium to replace fossil free carbon free nuclear with with natural gas, I remember there being some justifications around, you know, this is not actually going to increase emissions in Europe, because we'll do some fancy carbon trading with Poland maybe Do you remember any of the details around that like, the contortions that people have to kind of jump through to hold these positions while claiming to be green and climate concerns? Yeah,

Marco Visscher  16:54  

well, I didn't know too much about it. But it just doesn't seem right to say we can build fossil fuel plants. It's the people in Eastern Europe, they need to or I don't even know what their reasoning is, ultimately, probably these plans in Eastern Europe will be more polluting than they are in Belgium or the Netherlands. Right. So

Dr. Chris Keefer  17:20  

Mark Nelson talks about the ways in which the energy ministries of several European countries have sort of fallen to pieces from the kind of people that used to run them people with, you know, actual real qualifications, engineers and grid planners and things like that. You know, some of the I think the energy ministry in France is now the ministry of the ecological transition, which is interesting for a file that's so vital. But 10 vendors threatened she's, she's a lawyer, she has a degree in African Studies, you know, what, like, what qualifies her for this role and to make these kinds of decisions, like history and law with a legal firm that's kind of worked heavily for the fossil fuel industry. And that's, that's about it, I guess, right? There's no, I get this. For me. It's just It boggles my mind. Because when we're when we're concerned about climate, you know, it's two sides of a coin. And if you if you are not deeply studying energy transition, the history of energy transition, if not reading your thoughts love Smeal, for instance. You know, you're liable to make some enormous errors. And we, you know, we're constantly told me of limited time limited resources, and to be, you know, for the blind to be leading the blind in a sense, you know, and my prior life 345 years ago, I was completely energy literate, I had no understanding of this side of things. I would have been very much led along by by the blind, it's, it's just, it's shocking.

Marco Visscher  18:42  

Well, I see. I see what you're getting at, Chris, I think we shouldn't diminish. People who have an Africa Study for not being energy literate. I mean, this is something she's probably, you know, learned over the years that she was running her law firm, right, serving energy clients. That means you get to know the nitty gritty of, you know, all the infrastructure and the political regulations, I guess. You see what works and what doesn't. If you have an appreciation for technicalities, I guess you can be you can major in African Studies and still understand. And

Dr. Chris Keefer  19:22  

I think that's a fair point. I'm a doctor, you're who was waxing eloquent about about energy? I mean, I have no formal training in that background. So thank you. That's, that is a very fair point.

Marco Visscher  19:33  

But I guess her background at the Green Party just makes her compelled to support solar and wind, right, because what else is there? They're there. They don't like coal. They don't like natural gas. They say. They don't like oil, everything should you know, stick remaindered in the ground, keep it in the ground. Over here in the Netherlands, there's quite some criticism of biochar biomass or they don't like bye as either Well, big hydro projects in the Netherlands, you don't get very far with hydro. Of course, the big hydro is, it's not a good idea either. So what do you end up with? Ultimately, it's solar and wind, right? But they don't work by themselves. And what do they need? They need natural gas, and nobody's really talking about it. But that's what you end up with.

Dr. Chris Keefer  20:20  

My native lens pumped hydro joke is that you know, you just have to open up a dike. Instead, instead of building a reservoir at at, you know, elevation, you just simply flood an area below sea level, you can pump it back out when you have when you have copious amounts of of electricity. Good, less, less evil. Yeah, I mean, so in terms of sort of maybe closing off the episode. Are there any sort of the recent developments, I guess, right. This this decision to delay the closure of two of the seven reactors in Belgium? Have you been following that closely? Is that Is that how was that decision come to be made? How has it been received, in your, in your opinion within Belgium and Europe more broadly? I mean, Germany has not Germany has held fast, it's not going to make a difference. We're carrying on with our phase out. And, you know, we're talking about these eight power, the eight reactors coming in, in the UK and, and in Netherlands. I mean, when I was talking with some Finnish friends, they were saying, you know, it's just such a tragedy to us, because we're doing our part we're bringing on, you know, an EPR I think 1600 megawatts of carbon free power. And the Germans are just, you know, busily throwing away this was before, before the closure of the German three last year. I mean, throwing away eight, eight point something gigawatts. So it's, you know, it's this treadmill Decarbonization that Seaver Wang came up with? It's, it's it's a real source of frustration. But I mean, certainly it's, it's powerful to see Belgium kind of forced into this, this position. And again, not for climate concerns, but for, you know, cost price. And oh, yeah,

Marco Visscher  21:54  

well, when people get pulled in Belgium, and people get a question, do nuclear power plants emit co2? A lot of people will actually say that, yes, nuclear power plants emit co2, right. This is what they see on the pictures when they see the cooling towers that must be co2 spewing into the air right, rather than water vapor. So the I guess the level of knowledge could be could still increase in Belgium. I do also know from holdings taken over the over the years that support for nuclear in in the general public is a lot larger than it is in politics. So in politics, you see few parties, I think, make a case for nuclear really trying to keep it. I think there's only one party actually doing that. But I'm not entirely sure about that. So in politics, it's much more I guess, politicians are a little bit scared about nuclear, they probably think that there's a lot of opposition. They assume opposition, I guess, whereas if you look at the polls, that's quite some support. Right, and more people support nuclear than oppose it. This is true in the Netherlands as well. Very strikingly, actually. So I don't know. And then when this decision came to extend the life. There's life extension extension, for these two nuclear reactors and Doolan, one and dueling one in the hunch. I think it was pretty mildly received, but I'm not entirely sure you should ask a descriptor and have him on the show again, I guess, to know for sure. But, you know, this, the nuclear phase out in Belgium has been postponed so many times. Right. That decision was all the way back from the year 2000, I believe, the same year, that gara charter who joined Gazprom was also calling for this for the nuclear phase out in Germany. So and we're, it's 2022. Right. So I mean, and, well, well, some of it has happened, I guess, in Belgium with the shutting down of some of these nuclear reactors. But who knows? Maybe shale gas would be something that actually get started now, right in, in Europe. I mean, this is this other story, that green groups were under the influence of, you know, Putin and his cronies, I guess, for opposing fracking in, in Europe, and again, it sounds like this fantastic story, right? Oh, these green groups. They're not only bribed by the fossil fuel industry, they're just putting puppets Right. And, yeah, again, I'm not so sure if that's part of it. There's been some Some research done right about green groups like sea change, I think in the US, and there was this other one Energy Foundation, I believe, perhaps supported by Russian energy firms, including Gazprom, I think, through some, you know, Bermuda tax haven kind of construction, right. Yeah. From a business perspective, or a government perspective, I guess from it, it makes sense, right?

Dr. Chris Keefer  25:30  

Motive opportunity, right?

Marco Visscher  25:33  

Yeah. Yeah. This is what happens everywhere. I guess. If Russia has so many, you know, such gigantic gas reserves, they will be worth less if Europe starts fracking and gets the shale gas. Up. So it might be there. I did find something from the NATO chief. And there's Rasmussen, back in 2014. In the Guardian, he was saying, I have met allies who can report that Russia as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so called nongovernmental organizations, environmental organizations working against shale gas to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas. Now, I guess Rasmussen isn't alone. Nobody, right. So there must be some reason metrically actually wrote about this, too, on his on his blog. With the headlines you mentioned from Russia today, just calling fracking, like raping the earth, etc. These kinds of things. Um, and a gas from Germany, you lobbied the Bundestag to tell the German government German parliament mean this. Yeah, this could all be true, right. This is what what happened, as well, when nuclear started, this may be a sidestep now. But once in the very beginning, nuclear was this disruptive technology, right in the 1950s. It got so much support in the US with President Eisenhower making this atoms was for peace speech, there was this whole nuclear industry taking off. And back then it was the coal industry, of course, trying to maintain its position. Oil was coming up as a producer of electricity back then mainly. It all make sense that these fossil fuel companies then start to wonder what can we do to you know, block this disruptive technology that may, you know, change the whole energy sector? And there have been, you know, there's this word by Rob. Rod Adams, you have him on you had him on the show? You're right. Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Chris Keefer  28:00  

It's very interesting, the not in my backyard ism around like a comfort with Russian produce natural gas. And a revulsion at, you know, European produced fracking. You know, I'm someone who thinks that it's a tragedy and a crime to be especially burning natural gases, baseload electricity, when it's also a critical feedstock for things like fertilizer, and we're going to be reaping what we've sown there in terms of our botched energy policies, looking like food prices are skyrocketing. And we're headed for not just a brief little blip, but potentially several years of real pain here, and you know, food shortages, make make things real, and they make a lot of political instability. I'm very worried about that. But you know, the idea that, you know, we've been, we've, we've been creating a policy of we're burning, you know, a vital feedstock for World agriculture, or shutting down nuclear plants and burning, you know, what has been called sort of the food of food in the way that natural gas fuels the haber bosch process and creates so much of the world's you know, ammonia fertilizer, it's, it's a real tragedy, you know, I think humans are smarter than that, or we should be. And hopefully, we can, we can change course, and sometimes what's required is not the threat of of, of climate change, but something a little more real, I think, like, you know, an energy crisis and a war of aggression, which we feel compelled to respond to. So,

Marco Visscher  29:27  

yeah, it seems like climate change was not enough or so. Right. We knew we needed, apparently, something else to actually reconsider some of the energy choices made. Yeah. Yeah. And, and it's not so much that the anti nuclear folks like fossil fuel so much, I don't. I don't think so at all. It's just that they, they're not so much aware, or maybe not even so much interested in the consequences of an anti nuclear position, right, even if it results In the use of more fossil fuels,

Dr. Chris Keefer  30:02  

whether it's whether it's accidental or just, you know, de facto fossil fuel lobbying as a result of that position. I mean, the results don't don't change. But, you know, I do really like what you brought to this discussion, Marco in terms of having a sort of empathy and trying to understand, you know, again, the motivations, reasoning, rationale and justifications of the people making what I think you and I see is really shockingly bad decisions. But I do thank you for that. Because I think it's a it's it's really important if we're to have a politics, which actually gets somewhere where we realize that we have to collaborate across the political spectrum. With urgency to challenge the problems that arise ahead, we need to move beyond the politics of hyper polarization and characterization, towards really understanding each other's moral tastebuds that drive our political choices, and understanding, you know, the rationalizations that we can make. So we can argue with the ideas and not with the symbols and the personalities and the people. So

Marco Visscher  30:59  

I couldn't say it better. Chris. Yeah.

Dr. Chris Keefer  31:01  

Thank you for coming on. And I think presenting a pretty sort of compassionate profile of of 10 vendors threatened who's Yeah, we've we've kind of described what she's been up to. But thank you, Marco. It's, it's great having you on and I look forward to more chats in the future having you back on at some point. Thanks. Thanks.

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