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The UK’s great disappearing energy summit – POLITICO

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LONDON — It was billed as the summit that would “rewire the global energy system” — a chance for Brexit Britain to lead the world as war raged in Europe and energy prices soared. 

The London Energy Security Conference was announced to great fanfare last August by former U.K. Energy Secretary Grant Shapps. Shapps pledged to bring together key global players, who would cut deals so that energy price shocks would never again catch the world unawares.  

There is just one problem.

Less than a month before the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — the date with which the summit was meant to coincide — foreign diplomats and energy industry bosses say they’ve heard … next to nothing about it.

There is no confirmed venue, no clear agenda, and no invitations have gone out.

“I have no idea, sorry about that,” said one energy official in a European capital when POLITICO asked if they’d received an invitation or been briefed on the event.

Officials in two other European capitals also said they had received no information about the conference from British counterparts.

And two U.K. energy industry figures said they, too, have heard nothing. All were granted anonymity, like others interviewed for this story, to speak candidly about the government’s plans — or lack of them.

“I wouldn’t put it past them to invite everyone a few days before, if they wanted just domestic guests. But if they want anybody from abroad, it needs to be in diaries by now, for [any event] a month away,” said one of the energy industry figures.

Ukraine invasion

When the summit was announced, in an interview with POLITICO, the government said it would take place in “spring 2024 … around the time of the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.” But some suspect the event was punted into the long grass when Shapps — its lead advocate — was promoted to defense secretary just three weeks later.

Shapps, never one to let a good headline pass him by, had successfully lobbied Downing Street to let him announce the plan, said one U.K government official.   

“Number 10 said ‘OK’ — but you’ve actually got to do it now,” the official said. Instead, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak shuffled Shapps out of the department.

In his time at DESNZ, Shapps placed a heavy emphasis on the government’s hard-headed approach to energy security, which he linked to the Conservative government’s plans to “max out” the U.K.’s North Sea oil and gas reserves | Henry Nicholls/AFP via Getty Images

The summit is now the responsibility of his successor at the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ), Claire Coutinho. And with ministers’ attention fixed on a general election due later this year, some doubt the event will ever happen.

“This looks like a classic case of a minister’s random idea being quietly shelved in the hope that no-one would notice,” said Adam Bell, a former head of energy strategy at DESNZ’s predecessor, the Department for Business and Industrial Strategy, and now a director of policy at the Stonehaven consultancy.

That would be a shame, he added, because “there are still big unanswered questions on what a secure Europe-wide low-carbon energy system could look like — and the role that the U.K. would play in that.”

DESNZ insist the event is still on their agenda, and point to the fact that an “energy conference” was mentioned in November’s King’s Speech, which set out the government’s program for the coming parliamentary session.

But actual information remains vague. “We are working on plans for an energy security conference, and further details will be shared in due course,” a DESNZ spokesperson said.

‘It wasn’t exactly clear’

If it does ever happen, it’s not clear what form the summit could now take. 

In his time at DESNZ, Shapps placed a heavy emphasis on the government’s hard-headed approach to energy security, which he linked to the Conservative government’s plans to “max out” the U.K.’s North Sea oil and gas reserves.

But according to one person familiar with internal discussions about the summit, officials were, late last year, grappling with what to do with the event. DESNZ has considered giving it a clearer focus on the security of supply chains for net zero related technologies, they said.

“At that point they were wondering basically what the whole thing was going to be about,” the person said. “It wasn’t exactly clear what the brief was. They were trying to make something work.”

A second government official, granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on record, said Coutinho was keen to put her own stamp on the summit, potentially drawing on her previous work in finance and at the Treasury by giving the event more of an energy investment focus.

But for now, potential invitees are still in the dark — and somewhat amused.

When it was suggested that the event may have been announced with no detailed plan attached to it, one of the European officials replied to POLITICO’s message with a “lips sealed” emoji.

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