Is the head of the Tesla hearing biased?

As citizens air their objections to the new Tesla plant in Grünheide, environment agency official Ulrich Stock is being accused of waving the project through.

Teslastraße at the Grünheide construction site
Teslastraße at the Grünheide construction siteimago images/ZUMA Wire

Erkner-Critics of a new Tesla car factory in Brandenburg Thursday accused a key figure in hearings for the plant's missing construction permits of bias. 

The figure, Ulrich Stock, leads the Department of Technical Environmental Protection at the Brandenburg Environmental Agency that will decide whether to grant the permits for the Tesla factory in Grünheide southeast of Berlin.

Opponents are testifying during a hearing in Erkner, near Grünheide, that is chaired by Stock, a 62-year-old trained engineer, but who must also ultimately issue the permits, leading to the accusations of bias.

Tesla began construction on its first European factory earlier this year, operating with just provisional permits to accelerate the plant's completion. Officials said the current hearings should clear the way for construction but, if the objections prove to be founded, Tesla could theoretically be forced to abandon its plans and restore the once-wooded area though it's unlikely.

Meet Herr Stock.
Meet Herr Stock.davids/Sven Darmer

The hearing at the Erkner events centre is following strict corona regulations – journalists have to watch on a tv feed – and only critics who have submitted written objections in advance are allowed into the hall.

Just 116 of the 414 who have filed objections have shown up so far. Many of them are critical of Stock, including two who submitted motions of no confidence on Wednesday due to the perceived bias. The motions failed.

The chaos continued on Thursday. Stock continued to show little sympathy with Tesla critics. Some call him an authoritarian.

"I will not tolerate any more speeches about water," he said and threatened to "turn off the microphone for everyone else".

Stock is trapped in a strange role where he has to chair the meeting and moderate between critics, state authorities and Tesla. But he's also responsible for the five provisional permits that have allowed Tesla to keep building the factory for weeks without a valid building permit.

For many of the opponents to the factory, the agency's rubberstamping of the provisional permits made the issuance of whatever other permits were required a forgone conclusion.

"The procedure is open-ended," Stock said.

The hearing also only covers what Tesla considers to be the first stage of construction. The factory should open in 2021 with 12,000 workers production half a million cars each year. 

About 90 per cent of all applications are approved

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is planning several more stages, hoping that 40,000 workers will some day build 2 million cars per year in Brandenburg. But that is "not part of the current procedure," Stock said Thursday. 

He also likes to emphasise that the hearing is only about this very specific building application and not the big picture.

"This discussion is not about whether electric cars can help solve the ecological problem," he said.

He has also parried discussion about the logic of an American billionaires like Elon Musk buying into in Brandenburg and the working conditions of Bolivian workers mining the lithium that goes into Tesla batteries.

According to Stock's agency, protests against such major projects are rarely successful.

"About 90 per cent of all applications are approved," the agency said, defending its reasoning behind he provisional permits. The agency normally approves new plants if there are "no valid legal reasons to not do so."

This article was adapted from the original German by Maurice Frank.