Fears of a trade dispute with Canada have made European Union officials reluctant to categorise tar sands from North America as a more polluting fuel than conventional petrol.
Officials working for the EU’s executive, the European Commission, are considering the implementation of a fuel quality law nominally designed to make transport cleaner.
While the overall goal of the directive has been agreed - that oil companies bring down their emissions of climate changing greenhouse gases by 6 percent between this year and 2020 – its fineprint has yet to be hammered out. One of the trickiest issues to emerge in the discussions relates to whether imports of non-conventional sources of oil should be restricted.
In a 2009 paper drafted by environment officials tar sands were deemed to be 20 percent more damaging to the climate than the petrol typically used to power Europe’s cars. But this provision was removed from the draft after Ross Hornby, Canada’s ambassador in Brussels, wrote to Karl Falkenberg, head of the Commission’s environment department, in January.
Hornby’s letter was made available to green campaigners, under the EU’s freedom of information rules. In it, he objected to a proposal that fuels derived from tar sands would be treated differently to those using conventional crude oil. The reporting requirements that this would place on energy firms would be too onerous and would constitute a “barrier” to trade, he warned.
Tar sands – a mixture of bitumen, water, sand and clay – lying under the Canadian province of Alberta constitute the world’s second largest proven reserves of oil, outside Saudi Arabia. A study titled “Energy Revolution” published earlier this month by Greenpeace and the European Renewable Energy Council estimated that producing oil from tar sands would release over four times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than standard oil drilling does today.
A senior Brussels official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the question of how tar sands should be categorised in the EU “goes further than the quality of oil, it is also a trade question”. The official added that “you can be sure” the matter will be discussed in the context of a nominally separate free trade agreement that the EU and Canada have aimed to conclude by the end of next year.
Stuart Trew from the Council of Canadians, a social justice organisation, said a moratorium on the extraction of tar sands is necessary. The eagerness of the Ottawa government to exploit the reserves under Alberta is “a blight on Canada’s reputation and on the world,” he said.
Trew expressed particular concern about how a draft version of the trade agreement would – if implemented in its current form - allow corporations to take action against measures that they perceive as hostile to trade. A similar provision in the North America Free Trade Agreement has enabled companies to attack health and environmental measures in the U.S. and Mexico, he added, noting that the procedure lets corporations bypass courts and instead set up private panels.
“Any attempt to cut back on the production of tar sands, to make stronger environmental rules or to limit the amount of water used to make tar sands could result in a challenge,” he said. Three to five barrels of water are required for every barrel of oil produced from tar sands.
Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s commissioner for “climate action”, wrote to several green groups on July 13, promising that a proposal for regulating tar sands would be put forward after her summer break (most Brussels institutions close during August).
A spokeswoman for Hedegaard said that the Commission is “carefully analysing the different options available and will come up with a balanced proposal, including solid reporting requirements necessary for demonstrating compliance with the target.”
Shell, one of the largest investors in the Alberta tar sands industry, has been vigorously lobbying against tough EU fuel quality rules. In May, it hosted a dinner for members of the European Parliament in an attempt to convince them that tar sands extraction should not be vilified.
Ecologists are adamant that a specific “default value” should be set for tar sands, stating that their production must respect EU moves to reduce the environmental impact of transport fuel. Without such a value, tar sands would be treated the same as conventional petrol.
Nusa Urbancic from the organisation Transport and the Environment said that numerous scientific studies have indicated that tar sands must be regarded as dirtier than conventional fossil fuels. The results of the EU’s discussions will have implications that stretch beyond the Union’s borders, she added.
“The European Commission has a duty to protect the environment, not to protect Canada’s (commercial) interests,” she said. “Europe is a standard-setter when it comes to fuels, vehicles, electronic machinery and things like that. The Canadians fear that if the Europe puts in a value for tar sands, other countries will follow. This is clearly a political decision. If we want to prevent climate change, we should be leaving this stuff underground.”
•Originally published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net), 19 July 2010