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Formula 1’s Bizarre Push for E-Fuels Suddenly Makes Sense

A new report finds the explanation in a Saudi Aramco sponsorship deal.

A racecar.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

When four-time Formula 1 world champion Sebastian Vettel retired last year, he said the sport’s contribution to climate change played a part in his decision. At the time, his concern was mostly around F1’s contribution to carbon emissions — all that globetrotting required a lot of fuel, not to mention the emissions from the cars themselves.

What Vettel couldn’t have known, however, is the extent to which the sport was actively pushing against efforts to enact climate laws more broadly.

A new report from SourceMaterial, an investigative journalism outlet, details how, in the wake of a lucrative sponsorship deal with the Saudi oil company Aramco, F1 embarked on a campaign to convince EU lawmakers not to ban combustion engines by 2035. Instead, F1 representatives wrote to lawmakers, they should consider allowing the use of synthetic “sustainable fuels,” also known as e-fuels, rather than switching to electric vehicles wholesale.

Just to get this out of the way: E-fuels aren’t the sustainable salve automakers and Aramco make them out to be. They’re supposed to be made using captured carbon, which could in theory make them carbon neutral, however producing them takes an incredible amount of energy. Studies have also shown that these fuels may not, after all, be any less polluting than regular petroleum. And, as SourceMaterial points out, using e-fuels justifies the prolonged use of combustion engines rather than electrifying.

On top of this central fallacy, as one person told SourceMaterial, F1 itself had no reason to be lobbying the EU about fuels — its cars were exempt from the EU policy that would have mandated a transition to EVs. But F1’s deal with Aramco came with a stipulation that the two organizations “combine their considerable shared expertise” to advocate for the “advancement of sustainable fuels,” something F1 officers set about doing with aplomb. Ross Brawn, F1’s managing director until last year and the subject of a recent Keanu Reeves documentary about his great success as an F1 manager, called e-fuels a “wonderful opportunity” even though, it bears repeating, the fuels used by road cars would have absolutely no effect on his sport.

This appears to have been a handy solution for Aramco — the company isn’t registered as a lobbyist in the EU, and any attempts to directly lobby legislators likely would have been met poorly. But F1 is beloved in Europe, and lawmakers were happy to sit down with representatives of the sport.

This is just one example of Saudi interference in climate policy. In November, the Climate Social Science Network released a report detailing how Saudi Arabia deliberately stymied UN climate negotiations so that its oil and gas operations could continue unimpeded. Saudi envoys, for example, would push back against climate science, exaggerate the costs of mitigation, and downplay the impacts of rising temperatures. ”What sets Saudi Arabia apart from most other countries,” the authors wrote, “is that it sees its national interest as best served by obstructing intergovernmental efforts to tackle climate change.”

The tactics are working. In March the EU voted to allow the use of e-fuels in car engines beyond 2035, as reported by Autotrader. That vote, SourceMaterial notes, was spearheaded by a German lawmaker who co-hosted an event with F1 at the European Parliament that promoted the benefits of e-fuels.

F1 representatives denied that the sport was lobbying on behalf of Aramco. The whole investigation, for which Aramco refused to provide comment, is worth a serious read.


Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read More

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