By John Chalmers
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The EU's executive on Monday rejected suggestions it waited until New Year's Eve to publish divisive proposals to allow some natural gas and nuclear energy projects to be labelled as sustainable, saying "we weren't trying to do it on the sly".
The Commission's decision to include gas and nuclear investments in the European Union's "sustainable finance taxonomy" rules was circulated in a draft proposal late on Dec. 31 and leaked to some media organisations.
"Short of digging an actual hole, the European Commission couldn't have tried harder to bury this proposal," said Henry Eviston, spokesman on sustainable finance at the European Policy Office of the environmental group WWF.
"When the question was whether renewables are green, the Commission gave citizens three chances to provide their opinion. For fossil gas and nuclear, we get a document written behind closed doors and published on New Year's Eve," he said in an online posting.
European Commission Chief Spokesperson Eric Mamer told a news briefing that the executive had promised to present its position on what was a "very complex and sensitive topic" before the end of the year.
"We weren't trying to do it on the sly, if you like, by going for Dec. 31," he said. "I can assure you our colleagues would much prefer to have been relaxing on holiday, but they decided to continue their work through the Christmas holidays to make sure this came out before the end of the year."
During months of heated debate on the proposals, some EU countries said gas investments were needed to help them quit more-polluting coal. Others said labelling a fossil fuel as green would undermine the credibility of the rules and of the EU as it seeks to be a global leader in tackling climate change.
Nuclear energy is similarly divisive. France, the Czech Republic and Poland are among those saying that no CO2 emissions from nuclear power means it has a big role in curbing global warming. Austria, Germany and Luxembourg are among those opposed, citing concerns around radioactive waste.
The Commission argues that the inclusion of both gas and nuclear in its taxonomy, meant to guide investment in energy projects, is just to facilitate a transition to fully renewable energy production. The Commission draft sets conditions under which gas and nuclear can be used in the transition period.
The Commission will now collect comments to its draft until Jan. 12 and hopes to adopt a final text by the end of the month. After that, the text can be discussed with EU governments and parliament for up to six months. But it is unlikely to be rejected because that would require 20 of the 27 EU countries, representing 65% of EU citizens, to say "no".
The aim of the agreement is to send a signal to private investors as to what the EU considers acceptably "green" and stop greenwashing, whereby companies or investors overstate their eco-friendly credentials. The deal will also set limits on what EU governments can spend cash from the EU recovery fund.
(Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski; editing by Barbara Lewis and Louise Heavens)