Dutch court denies RWE, UNIPER damages for coal phase-out. Rejects ia ‘permit defence’ under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme ETS.

RWE’s case (seeking huge damages for the impact on its assets following the Dutch coal phase-out) under investor-State dispute settlement (ISDS) continues I understand (I would also suggest it is problematic given the ECT’s fork in the road provisions), while Uniper’s will be dropped as part of its bail-out conditions. Yet this post is about yesterday’s first instance Uniper judgment and RWE judgment in the Dutch courts. I use the Uniper judgment for this post, the RWE judgment is not materially different as to its legal analysis.

Of note is first of all that these judgments are by the ‘commercial’ chamber at the Den Haag court, not an ‘environmental’ chamber. This might be relevant for those wishing to present the judgment as one of a maverick band of environmental crusaders.

RWE and UNIPER’s claims are based on ‘A1P1‘ (Article 1 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights) and Article 17 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, both of which protect the right to property.

[5.6] the court lays out the benchmarks (translation courtesy of DeepL and double-checked by me):

( a) is there “possession” (property)

( b) is there “interference,” that is, deprivation or regulation of the right to property?

If both these conditions are met, then the following requirements are examined:

( c) is the interference “lawful,” that is, provided for by law;

( d) if so, does the infringement have a legitimate objective that serves to promote the “general interest,” and

( e) if so, is there a “fair balance,” that is, a reasonable balance, between the requirements of the general interest and the protection of the fundamental rights of the individual?

The latter “fair balance test” is not satisfied if there is an individual and excessive burden on the person concerned.

[5.9] the State had argued that uncertain future earnings are not caught by A1P1 however the court [5.10] disagrees. The corporations have a long-term guarantee to use of the site, ia via a long-term lease. That the earnings might potentially not qualify as possessions, does not diminish the qualification of the guaranteed economic interest as ‘property’.

Interference, lawfulness and general interest are established each in one para [5.11 ff] , and did not seem to be the focus of much discussion even by the parties.

Fair balance is discussed extensively [5.14] ff. [5.15.3] the court qualifies the measure as regulatory interference and not de facto expropriation (the latter would have triggered guaranteed compensation rights). Even if electricity generation using coal will be phased-out, after the end of the transition period, Uniper will continue to have use of the site and has indeed already assumed such use in announced coal-free business plans.

The court then discusses the foreseeability at length, concluding [5.16.31] that although the Dutch Government frequently expressed support for modern facilities generating electricity using coal, this was always done with the caveat that that method had to be compatible with the Dutch climate commitments. [5.16.35] the ETS permit defence is dismissed.

[5.17.9] the court, having studies the various scientific reports presented to it, holds that there are most definitely alternative uses for the site. That their profitability is uncertain, is simply also a feature of energy markets as a whole.

[5.18] the court holds that the Dutch coal phase-out does have an effect on reduced CO2 emissions (carbon leakage is not accepted as being of much relevance to that conclusion). For the measure to be considered not the least trade-restrictive, the Dutch State is held to have a wide margin of manoeuvre and it is not established that the State gravely erred in opting for a coal phase-out [5.18.7]. The long transition period is held to substantiate enough room for compensation [5.19.6], again with reference to the volatility of market returns as being part and parcel of energy markets full stop.

Like the Dutch judgments eg in Urgenda, this judgment on protection of property rights viz GHG emission reduction policies, is likely to serve as an international benchmark. It can be appealed, of course.


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