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What role did I play in the french national debate on energy ?

french version : june 2003 - translated in january 2004

website of the author : www.manicore.com - contact the author : jean-marc@manicore.com

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Text written before the beginning of the debate (17 january 2003)

On the 14th of january, 2003, I have been appointed president of the consultative committee for the national debate on energy. In this debate, there will be many opinons expressed on this and that (which is a good thing, because that's what it is all about !), and part of these opinions will, without any doubt, concern the partiality of such or such person involved with the organization, and expose all the naughty actions that (s)he will have comitted. It is obvious that I won't be an exception to this rule (my forecast did not take long to materialize : 3 weeks after my appointment the first sharp reproaches were already there !).

As I have always tried to be transparent, I thought useful to specify, before everything starts, a couple of little things attached to the context of my appointment and the reasons for which I have said yes, in order to avoid any misunderstanding, and also avoid to inherit, should the case arise, of sins that are not mine.

This is what I would like to declare BEFORE more or less surprizing thoughts be attributed to me:

5 have never asked anything to anyone, or manoeuver in any way to be appointed somewhere. One day, I received an email from the staff of the ministry of industry (where I did not know anyone) offering this "presidency". I was the first surprised !

I did not play any role in the composition of the consultative committe, that has been "recruted" by the Ministry of Industry (or at least not by me). No one can therefore put the blame on me for not being in this committee.

I do not have, and never had, a membership in a political party, hence not more in the presently ruling party than elsewhere.

It's been 2 years now that I created an website on which I offer a ccouple of viewpoints on climate change and energy uses. None of these texts has ever been asked - or even suggested - by one of the actors of the debate that starts, two exceptions being two studies on telework that had been bought by the Ministry of Industry a couple of years ago and whose proceedings are on my website.

From time to time, a paper or a magazine grants me the honor of wishing to reproduce one of my texts or some of my opinions. It has recently been the case on wind power and will soon be on nuclear energy. In both cases it is a pure coincidence and is in no way a smart move from me to take advantage of my recent appointment to increase my visibility or try to advocate a point of view.

The article on nuclear energy that will be published in january in the magazine "Le Débat" is not a "demand" of whoever, but the simple result of my own thoughts. This article should initially have been published in september 2002, but for a material reason the publishing has been delayed to january 2003, without any demand on my side (anyway, in last september I did not know that there would be a debate on energy, and I knew even less that I would play a role in it, so I don't see why I would have tried to delay the publishing).

Just the same, "Pèlerin Magazine" just published an interview of your humble servant on wind power. On the first hand part of the answers that are attributed to me are not consistent with my thoughts (I could not read me over), and hence I don't confirm them, and on the second hand this interview happened in december, at a time when I never imagined the least that I would be part of a committee for a debate etc.

The role of the consultative committee is notably to contribute to the general organization of the 7 "'national meetings" that will be directly organized by the Ministry of Industry, by suggesting the themes of the sessions and the names of possible lecturers or participants. This committee can also make suggestions on the tools of the debate (website, brochures, etc). My role is to ensure the animation of this committee, but the final cut belongs to the government, as always in such cases. However, it is obvious that as long as I stay it means that I do not have profound differences with the way things are done. Otherwise, I leave !

In this debate, I do not have any official role, or any unspoken role besides what is mentionned above, and in particular I am not serving any actor or group of the debate : I just represent myself (It is hard enoughs sometimes !). Though I would not qualify myself as independant : I am perfectly linked to my clients, my banker, my wife's opinions (mostly !), my kids, my past readings and lectures, my past training as an engineer, and a lot of other things.

This way of seeing things applies of course to everyone, and therefore I do not believe more in independance for others than for me. Anyone who has a banker, a family, employees, members (of associations, parties...), clients, or a boss, which starts to enclose a lot of people, is perfectly dependant from all this. If such an individual self-proclaims to be independant, it is independant from who and what exactly ?

But I believe in transparency, that means saying who one is dependant from, letting one's interlocutor judge by himself whether of the degree of independance it confers in the given context. This is why I have never hiddden who my clients are (neither who is my wife).

Let's come to the important point : why did I say yes ? Because one of the objectives officially put forward by the government is that everyone becomes conscious of his(her) own responsibility in the constant growth of the energy consumption in our country, and his(her) own possibilities to act, as modest as they may be, and that seems to be a very good objective to me. As long as the reflex of many of us is to say : my personnal consumption is so negligible in all this world, and it is therefore mainly "others" (others = industrial companies, politicians, truckers, Americans, the next generation, my neighbours, or whoever else...) that should make efforts first, but not me, I don't see any "soft" solution to solve the problem of the perpetual growth of our energy consumption, and therefore the unavoidable end of growth, more or less brutal, that will follow one day.

My participating does not mean in any way that I will necessarily agree (or necessarily disagree) with the propositions enclosed in the law that will be discussed by the members of parliament. Once again, I am just in charge of an organization mission, altogether pretty classical, even if it concerns the public life of the country. My only ambition is to help correctly posing the problem, and if I can help my fellow citizens to understand :

that the world is alas finitie and that we must do with,

that energy is a physical notion before being an economic one, and therefore that the perpetual growth of our energy consumption is not possible, and even not a forever constant consumption of fossil fuels,

that these obvious facts, that we nevertheless forget every day, raise a number of problems that do not have any satisfying solution today,

well I will not have totally lost my time. If, in addition, I can efficiently be part of the action to achieve that every journalist and every politician of this country understands :

that one can't suppress an inconvenient worth 1000 with a solution that is worth 1 at most,

that solutions are never the same whether we have one week or 50 years to implement them,

that it is difficult to ask as consumers what we reject as citizens,

and most of all that "clean" energy, that we could call on indefinitely without any inconvenient, does not exist, because here as always it is the dose that makes the poison (just as for anything : sugar is harmless if one eats 1 g a day, but a poison for who eats 5 kg a day),

then I probably deserve a full rank of medals, the Nobel Prize and a tomb in the Panthéon !

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Eventually, what did come out of this ? (8 june 2003)

After this kind of exercise, it is usual to make an assesment. So here is the distribution of the bonuses and maluses ! Before everything else I recall that I did not meet the Ministry once during this debate, except for a 40 second shakehand. Hence I still don't know exactly what were her specifications, and what she expected of this.

Let's start with what I consider as negative conclusions :

My biggest regret is that this debate remained confined to the ministry of industry (the said industry only consumes 25% to 30% of the energy in France), and the other ministries (the first one included) never showed up, when abundant energy is what shapes every detail of our modern world. In particular the Ministry of Transports and of housing (M. Gilles de Robien, not to name him) never joined the show, and did not make the smallest speech showing that he had an interest of some kind during the debate. Though 70% of the final energy consumption in France comes from transports (by road or by plane) and buildings (heating, hot sanitary water, cooking, all electric uses....), that is sectors that are directly reporting to this ministry. Most of the measures regarding the energy demand that have been suggested during the debate (better insulation of houses and buildings, speed limits, modification of the transportation infrastructures, etc) should much more be discussed with this ministry than with the ministry of industry. It would be interesting to know why he remained invisible and speechless.

Not only did the ministry of transports never showed up in the debate, but while most beautiful speeches when pronounced, explaining that the inflation of road transports would lead us directly to big trouble, we learnt on may 7th, 2003, that the ministry of transports wished to build a highway to go round Bordeaux, and on may 9th, 2003 that a highway was to be built between Lyons and Balbigny (not to mention an airport project near Notre Dame des Lande, the extension of the Havre harbour, etc). Question (for a champion of double talk) : is it possible to know what the government really wants ? The growth of the flows of people and goods, "as long as it is possible", or their decrease ?

The government managed this debate with a harmful precipitation, what generated multiple faux pas (web site not appropriate, meetings poorly prepared and sometimes anounced with less than a week's notice, etc). A large part of the critics - mostly justified - heard during the first meetings would not have been founded if this debate had benefited from a couple extra months of preparation.

The time really devoted to questions during the symposiums have been reduced to the tiniest share, following an excessive number of participants at the roundtables. In the facts, and contrary to what was anounced on the website of the debate, the committee that I had the honour to presidate was not in charge of finalizing the programs but just to suggest some. The general articulation suggested by the committee has always been respected, but we never have been followed on the number of participants. Propositions have genrally been made with 3 or 4 participants only per roundtable, to "leave some air" to the public. It is the govenment that, when finalizing the programs, quite systematically completed to 5 to 6 participants per rountable (the name of the game was : whoever protested loud enough and had enough journalist friends was ensured a seat, no matter whether it brought any added value or not). Regarding the symposiums themselves, it is the major defect that I see.

With a couple of exceptions, I don't think that the general public will come out of this debate much better informed than what he was at the beginning. This remaark is also valid for the political world and the press.

The press showed much too much interest for the debate on the debate, that is what Mr. So or Mrs Such thought of the debate itself (So and Such being, generally, all those that protested against what went wrong), and way too little interest for the problem itself.

Some "major challenges" have never been mentionned . The fact that fossil fuels resserves are limited, and that as long as we are heavily dependant on these energies, the only good question is to know when will the next oil shock (or gas shock) happen ? Silence... The fact that the ongoing climate change threatens to induce a shift of climatic era, since an increase of just a couple degrees of the mean temperature corresponds to the transition between an ice age and today, and that it is maybe legitimate to do everything to avoid it ? No interest.... The fact that it is difficult to conciliate a perpetual growth of our material consumption with a decrease of the energy consumption? Bah.... Etc.

In the end, the only two things that excited the press were windpower and nuclear plants, both producing only electricity, when electricity only represents 20% to 40% of our energy consumption, depending in our way to calculate.

The objective of dividing the french CO2 emissions by 4 since 2050, recalled in the opening of the debate, has been the sibject of a very small amount of comments, when it is obviously the most revolutionnary one announced - or more exactly recalled - during this debate. If this objective was to be really implemented, man on the moon would be a joke in comparison.

It is hard to say whether this weak echo of the debate in the press is due to the hostility of the press for a technical subject, a lack of interest of our citizens, a consequence of the "anti-debate" campaign done by a ccouple of associations at its beginning, to the fact that it was organized by a "secondary" ministry, because of the war in Irak (that xas perfectly in the scope !)....

The associations "defending the environment" that were pressent in the consultative committee, and that left after 3 meetings, behaved somewhat surprisingly as far as I can express an opinion :

I had suggested that the first symposium of the debate started with a lecture giving some elementary data on the "physical" aspects : how is consumption evolving, how much CO2 in this and that, how many windmills to produce so many kWh, what amount of nuclear waste is produced each year in France, etc. The only members of the consultative committee that were violently opposing this idea belonged to these associations "defending the environment". I still did not understanjd why giving some orders of magnitude was edging off the information. Should we ignore the laws of physics to let more room to slogans ?

Though we had only started the discussions, and that the general organization of the symposiums was all but decided (some had even not been discussed at all !), these "associations" declared to the press that everything was already settled in this debate, what was a pure invention. I very seriously asked myself whether the only reason to exist for these associations was to protest, in the end. If such is the case, it is definitiely a useful fonction, but it is then important that nobody counts on them to make practical propositions compatible with the world as we know it (and in particular with the laws of physics and arithmetics).

These associations seemed to have mixed up - volontarily ? - "participate to the organization of the debate" and "accept in advance the objectives of the government that will be put in the bill that will follow". I don't think that the other members of the consultative committee will be held responsible of what the government will do just because they were in that committee. As for me I have clearly indicated from the beginning that the two were not equivalent.

And at last some people seem to have considered that a "real debate" is a debate that necessarily leads to the conclusion that we should pull out of nuclear energy !

Let's now review the good sides (because there were some, of course) :

The symposiums all took place in a calm and sereine atmosphere. There has never been any violent dispute in the hall where the debate took place (though anyone could assist ; and no "sorting out" of the public has been done as far as I know), and even the day nuclear energy was discussed the paroxysm of violence was obtained with a little clapping or whistling in the public.

The setting up of "Wise men" supervising the debate was a very good idea. Their role as "judge" was accepted by everyone (including those who left the place, slamming the door and denouncing the debate as a masquerade) from the beginning to the end. It is nevertheless difficult to discriminate the quality of the idea from the quality of the owners of the positions, and hence to know whether it is the role or the men chosen for it that ensured the success of the concept.

If the exercise has finally not touched much the general public, it has indubitably been fructuous in the restricted circle of the "actors" of energy, where it enabled many discussions that would probably not have happened without this debate. This only aspect justifies the experience, even though speaking of a "national debate", what more "associating all French" (initial objective), turned out to be, practically, a much excessive expression to designate what really happened. This being said, it is very difficult to know whether the existence of this debate will influence much the contents of the bill on energy that will follow. This is not a critic, but a mere sincere question.

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Verbatim

Of course, many things have been said in 7 days of symposiums. Here are just a couple of declarations heard during the debate that I consider as particularly enlightening or amusing. They might have been held publicly or not. When not, I do not quote the authro to avoid that (s)he be annoyed to have been frenk with me. When the declarations were made in public, I mention the symposium.

"The giving up of nuclear energy in Germany is a purely political decision. We do not have any practical plan today to replace nuclear energy". Horst SCHNEIDER, in charge of nuclear economics with the general direction of nuclear energy at the federal ministry of economy and work (Rennes, 6 may 2003).

"I agree perfectly with what you say on nuclear energy, but I can't write it because of my hierarchy". I received this message - written differently, but saying the same thing - from 2 journalists of "first rank medias" in my country (private correspondance).

"Gas poses no particular problem" (I do not swear that this is the exact sentence pronounced, but it was clearly the meaning ; every person in the romm caan testify !). Mr. Jean-Marie DAUGER, Deputy Director General of Gaz de France (Bordeaux, 24 april 2003).

"Renewable energies are not competitors of nuclear energy, but complementary". André ANTOLINI, president of the Syndicat des Energies Renouvelables (Rennes, 5 may 2003).

"The development of windd power is excellent news for us, because our coal power plants will be sollicited for windless periods". Eric DYEVRE, Société Nationale d'Electricité et de Thermique, subsidiary of Charbonnages de France owning several coal fired power plants (Bordeaux, 24 april 2003).

"I have been very surprised to see the ministries leave just after tjeir speeches. In Sweeden, when a ministry comes to give a speech, (s)he stays after to listen to the rest of the debate, and in many other european countries it is also the case". Saida ENGSTROM, SKB (national sweedish agency for the management of nuclear waste), private conversation. (Rennes, 6 mai 2003)

"we should ban incandescent light bulbs, that represent an obsolete technology". Benoît LEBOT, in charge of energy efficiency with the International Energy Agency (Strasbourg, 3 april 2003).

"I personally consider that it would be a mistake to give up nuclear energy, but I can't say it publicly because the members of my association are not ready to hear it". Private conversation with a leader of an "environment oriented" NGO.

"electric heating emits more CO2 than fuel oil heating". Claude ARCHIMBAUD, Chauffage Fioul (Strasbourg, 3 april 2003). (NB : in France, because of the share of nuclear and hydro in the total, it is of course totally false !).

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Facts and figures

Number of official symposiums" : 7

Number of participants (in the public) for each symposium : several hundreds.

Number of demonstrators that protested, outside the room, against a biaised debate : 15 to 30 depending on the places

Number of visitors on the website of the debate : about 1.500 per day.

Number of articles mentioning the debate in the press : 20 to 40 per week, let's say. Most of the time short articles. I noticed on this occasion that some articles in the daily press in the regions were a faithful reproduction, comas included, of the wire of the AFP.

Number of members in the "consultative committee" : 45 before the leaving of the 5 representants of the associations WWF, Greenpeace, Agir pour l'Environnement, Réseau Action Climat, and France Nature Environnement.

Number of meetings of the "consultative committee" : 7 (of which 3 with the above associations then 4 without).

Number of manifestations labelled "partner initiative" (not organized by the government, but agreed as being part of the debate) : roughly 300

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