Elon Musk’s meteoric rise may have seemed unstoppable in 2020, but the humble sand lizard has put the brakes on Tesla’s plans for a €4bn electric car factory in Germany.
A German court has forced the tech billionaire’s company to halt work cutting down trees on the site of its new gigafactory in a small town south-east of Berlin because of conservation fears for the protected species.
Mr Musk announced last year he had chosen Grünheide as the base for Tesla’s new plant to produce Model Y electric vehicles for the global market, in a decision seen as a big vote of confidence in Germany’s auto sector and in Berlin as a centre for digital technology.
Tesla’s factory, which was expected to open next summer, will produce about 500,000 cars a year. The company is also looking to make batteries at Grünheide for use in its vehicles.
But while many locals have welcomed the Gigafactory project — saying it will bring badly needed jobs to the region — the court agreed with environmentalists that some of the places where Tesla planned to chop down trees were the “habitat of wintering sand lizards which would likely not survive such clearance measures”.
Auto industry experts said the court’s ruling had damaged the country’s image as a place to do business. “Germany has created a disproportionate jungle of regulations which in many places impede big investments,” said Stefan Bratzel, director of the Centre of Automotive Management near Cologne. “It would be very embarrassing for Germany as an industrial nation if Tesla’s investment is significantly affected by this.”
However, the ruling was welcomed by two local environmental groups, Nabu and the Brandenburg Green League, which had taken Tesla to court over the forest clearance and have long opposed its methods at the site.
Christiane Schröder, Nabu’s manager for the state of Brandenburg, said local authorities had turned a blind eye to environmental rules in their enthusiasm for Tesla’s megaproject. “We can’t accept the idea of a special ‘Lex Tesla’ that would have watered down Germany’s standards for conservation and the protection of species,” she said.
Tesla had collected the reptiles and relocated them, but the court said it had done so at a time when the adult male lizards should have already been in their winter quarters. The action Tesla had taken had therefore not necessarily reduced the risk of death, it said.
The court also stopped Tesla from clearing a small strip of forest next to a nearby motorway, arguing that it was “not apparent” that this area was necessary for the construction of its plant. The carmaker has also been reprimanded for failing to set aside a deposit for restoration work, as legally required under the terms of the permit to remove trees on the site.
Environmental organisations have long argued that Tesla has no business building a big industrial factory in a water conservation zone bordering a nature reserve. Some also worried that an increase in traffic at the site would throw local transport into chaos.
“We are still of the opinion that, from the point of view of nature conservation, this is definitely the wrong place [to build a plant],” said Ms Schröder.
Still, some commentators have warned that the court decision to stop the forest clearance was a bad omen. Marcel Fratzscher, head of the DIW, a think-tank, said it highlighted the “heavy bureaucratic burden and high regulatory uncertainty, which make it costly and time-consuming for companies to realise investment projects” in Germany.
“German law is too often held hostage by vested interests so that Germany is at risk of becoming less attractive as a location for businesses,” he said.