Germany pitches e-fuel fix in car engine standoff with Brussels

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BERLIN — The German government tried to defuse a growing conflict with the EU by proposing changes to green transport legislation in a letter sent Wednesday to the European Commission, according to an official who has seen the letter.

The idea is to create a loophole for the continued sale of combustion engine cars after 2035 despite EU plans for a ban from that year.

Berlin, along with allies, has dug in its heels over the 2035 measure, threatening to blow up already agreed EU car emissions legislation at the last minute.

In a bid to defuse the standoff ahead of next week’s EU leaders’ summit, the German government sent a letter to the Commission spelling out what it wants in return for lifting its blockade. Environment ministers meet on Thursday for talks on heavy vehicle pollutant emission standards.

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The proposal includes carving out criteria for vehicles running only on e-fuels — synthetic alternatives to fossil fuels made from hydrogen and CO2 that can be used in traditional combustion engines — in the bloc’s existing Euro 6 pollutant legislation. Those are rules that apply to non-CO2 pollutants.

Berlin also wants to add a delegated act — a piece of secondary legislation — to the 2035 CO2 standards that would allow for some kind of crediting system for e-fuels.

The letter was sent by Christoph Burmeister, the head of Transport Minister Volker Wissing’s office, to Diederik Samsom, the head of cabinet of EU Green Deal Commissioner Frans Timmermans.

The idea is for e-fuels to be added to the text of the 2035 legislation; both the European Parliament and countries like France have made clear they won’t allow the legislative package — which took two years to negotiate — to be reopened.

Both measures proposed by Germany could be introduced within a year, but it’s unclear whether the Parliament would allow changes to the legislation through the streamlined process of delegated and implementing acts suggested by the German proposal without having a say.

During last year’s talks on the 2035 legislation, Germany’s efforts to create space for e-fuels were rebuffed by other member countries and by the Parliament.

E-fuels are being championed by Germany’s Free Democratic Party, which controls’ the country’s transport ministry under the three-party ruling coalition, seeing it as a way of shielding the country’s powerful car industry from the wrenching change of switching to electric cars.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz voiced optimism on Wednesday that a solution to the dispute is near.

“This is not an impossible task, it is not difficult either, and in this respect I also expect a result soon,” the chancellor said during a press conference with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson.

Scholz also disputed that Germany’s unusual resistance to EU legislation at this late stage in the lawmaking process was undermining Berlin’s reputation. “I cannot confirm any resentment” from other member countries, he said.

Despite that, France isn’t happy with Germany’s brinkmanship.

“The change of the German position seems to be linked to internal politics considerations that should not deflect European policies,” French Industry Minister Roland Lescure told POLITICO. “We took a decision now let’s move on and not lose time.”