Canada Fears Dirty Oil Label in Europe

The Canadian government's tar sands roadshow was in Europe this week trying to convince the European Union (EU) not to slap a “dirtier oil” label on the tar sands.

Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver visited Paris, London, and Brussels to argue against the EU implementing the latest version of its Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) that would discourage sales of fuels made from tar sands in the EU.  

A very small amount of fuels from tar sands actually reach Europe. European refineries are not equipped to process the tar-like form of petroleum called bitumen. Canada's tar sands industry would not lose a customer if the FQD passed today.

“The fact that the Canadian government is so keen to stop the FQD from going ahead indicates just how important it would be, not just in closing off the European market to tar sands oil but in setting a precedent for other countries to reject tar sands imports,” says Emily Coats, co-director of the UK Tar Sands Network.

“The FQD would be a game changer for the tar sands industry,” Coats told DeSmog Canada.

The row between Canada and the EU over the FQD is now in its fourth year

“It is quite appalling that the EU is not able to implement its own legislation because of intense lobbying of a third country (Canada),” says Nuša Urbančič, a programme manager with the transport policy group Transport & Environment based in Brussels.

“The proposal should have been adopted in January 2011. We are now in May 2013 and we are still discussing the same thing.” Urbančič has been involved in the campaign to pass the revised version of the FQD from day one.

One of the ways the EU is tackling climate change is through the FQD requiring transport fuel suppliers to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of their product by 6% by 2020 (2010 baseline).

The measure encourages fuel suppliers to sell fuels in the EU that have a lower carbon footprint. Due to the extremely energy intensive process to extract and upgrade bitumen the FQD labelled fuels from tar sands as having a higher carbon footprint than conventional oil. The same was done with fuels from oil shale, another unconventional oil.

An EU commissioned report in 2011 by Adam Brandt of Stanford University confirmed GHG emissions from tar sands crude were 12-40% were higher than conventional oil. The EU averaged off their value for tar sands crude at 23%.

A European study released on May 7th shows the FQD will prevent nearly 70 million tons of  GHG emissions from reaching the atmosphere annually. This amount is slightly more than British Columbia's total annual GHG emissions.

Team Tar Sands Operations in Europe

"There have been massive lobbying campaigns by the car industry, by the chemicals industry, banks, food giants, etc.," Satu Hassi, a Finnish Member of European Parliament told Reuters in 2012 about the Canadian lobbying efforts against the FQD.

"But so far I have not seen such a lobbying campaign by any state."

Internal documents released in 2011 revealed the Canadian government had launched a "pan European oil sands advocacy strategy" the year before "to protect and advance Canadian interests related to the oil sands and broader interests in Europe including a Canada's [sic] brand in Europe."

Members of the advocacy strategy included Canadian embassies in Norway (not part of the EU), Belgium, France, Netherlands and Germany and the Canadian High Commission in the UK. Between September 2009 and the summer of 2011 at least 110 lobby meetings took place between Canadian officials and EU decision makers about the FQD.  

Not surprisingly in the last vote on the implementation of the FQD in February 2012 the UK, France, Germany, Netherlands and Belgium all abstained from voting. This was actually seen as an improvement from their previous positions because many had expected these EU countries to vote against the FQD as a result of being intensely lobbied by Canada.

Canadian government fears "discriminatory" dirty oil precedent

“This fuel-quality directive (FQD) is discriminatory towards Canadian oil and not supported by scientific facts,” Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver told the Globe and Mail on May 8th.

Oliver in April publicly stated he believed scientists have exaggerated their claims about climate change and attacked one of the world's leading climate scientists for what Oliver said was “exaggerated rhetoric” about the tar sands.

The EU on the other hand is leading the world in taking action on climate change through its  prestigious scientific institutions and its innovative legislation and policies.

“Europeans are starting to see Canada as a combative and backward sidekick to Big Oil, rather than the progressive and democratic nation it once was,” Coats said in an interview with DeSmog Canada.

There has been some sabre rattling with the Canadian government saying they will take the EU to the World Trade Organization (WTO) over the FQD. A 2011 report by the European legal group Défense Terre found "(t)he Canadian government faces significant obstacles, if not insurmountable hurdles, in a WTO challenge” against FQD.

Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner was quite honest about what the battle over the FQD was really about when he said in 2010:

“It is not because we are protecting a customer base [in Europe], but because we respect the fact that decisions in Europe find their way into other policies around the world.”

The EU's impact assessment of the FQD will be completed by summer. A vote on the FQD by the environmental ministers of EU member states could take place in the fall. Only a “qualified majority” or two-thirds majority against can defeat the FQD. 

For Canadians who disagree with their government interfering with EU democracy and want to help Europeans pass the FQD Coats has this advice:

“If EU politicians visit Canada you could do a solidarity protest, like we did against Keystone XL when US Secretary of State John Kerry came to London.”

“Let the EU know the Harper government does not speak for you.”

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