Battle in the woods

RWE boss says politicians abandoned his company to the mob

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Path to a PR disaster. Source: Reuters

No other German company – not even diesel-stained Volkswagen – has a public relations problem like energy utility RWE. In recent weeks, the company has pressed ahead with plans to raze the ancient Hambach Forest, close to the city of Cologne, in order to extend local brown coal mining operations.

RWE’s move, which comes at a time when Germany is rapidly shifting away from fossil fuels, has roused determined opposition from thousands of environmental activists. There have been violent skirmishes between activists and police, and the accidental death of a blogger who fell from a tree house.

In a frank interview with Handelsblatt, Rolf Martin Schmitz, RWE’s boss, said his company would not back down under any circumstances. “The forest cannot be saved. Anything else is just illusion,” he insisted, saying the clearance formed part of complex technical and economic systems which were needed to ensure continued power supply. RWE had a legal and economic right to proceed, and it would do so, he said.

Mr. Schmitz said he was well aware of the huge PR problem the conflict had created for his company. “To some extent I feel quite powerless,” he said, adding that the forest has wrongly been turned into a symbol of resistance to fossil fuels, and used to create a false image of his company.

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Mr. Schmitz points to the government. Source: DPA

In fact, RWE is at the forefront of the energy revolution, rapidly converting its operations to renewable energy. It was ready to invest another €1.5 billion ($1.75 billion) annually to speed the conversion. But for decades its operations had relied on nuclear and coal-fired power stations. With Germany’s nuclear capacity due to end in three years’ time, coal could not be abolished overnight.

Mr. Schmitz said the federal government had left his company in the lurch. He said that Germany’s coal commission, which is examining the details of ending coal-fired generation, understood very well why Hambach Forest had to be demolished.

Although regional politicians had backed RWE, federal economics and energy minister Peter Altmaier, who oversees the commission, had offered the company no support, he said. Despite “criminal” protest actions on the part of environmentalists, the minister had failed to intervene: “I do not understand how a company acting quite legally can be abandoned like this,” said Mr. Schmitz.

The long brown road

The RWE boss said the company was profoundly interested in winding down coal-powered generation in Germany. “We are ready to abandon coal,” he said. But the process must be orderly and conducted over an extended period, while events in the Hambach Forest should not distract from RWE’s massive contribution to Germany’s overall energy revolution, he added.

As of now, RWE can legally continue to use brown coal until 2045, but it was willing to discuss alternative solutions with the coal commission, Mr. Schmitz said. However, he refused to name a concrete date, saying the company had complicated legal obligations, and precise dates had to be agreed within that framework. The chief executive would not be drawn on whether the company would seek compensation if a faster timetable were imposed.

For now, Mr. Schmitz said his main responsibility had to be to RWE’s 5,000 power-generation employees who depend on the continued use of brown coal from the Hambach Forest area. “I cannot put those jobs on the line. I won’t do that just to improve my own image,” he said.

Peter Brors is Handelsblatt’s deputy editor-in-chief, based in Düsseldorf. Jürgen Flauger covers the energy market for Handelsblatt, including electricity and gas providers, international market developments and energy policy. Brían Hanrahan adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: brors@handelsblatt.com, flauger@handelsblatt.com

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