Oilsands in the EU: European Union Receives its First Bitumen Shipment Today

Today an oil tanker carrying between 500,000 and 600,000 barrels of western Canadian oilsands (also called tarsands) bitumen arrives in Bilbao, a port city in northern Spanish. It is the first shipment of Canadian bitumen to the European Union and a sign the federal government’s “pan European oilsands advocacy strategy” is succeeding.

“This shipment could open the door to more imports of dirty tarsands," says Franziska Achterberg of Greenpeace from Brussels. "Europe can’t be both a climate champion and a market for climate-wrecking tar sands. The EU must uphold its environmental credentials and stand up to the intense lobbying by the oil industry and the Canadian government."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has been lobbying the EU since 2009 to keep its markets open to bitumen. Internal documents have shown the federal government has used its embassies in Europe “to protect and advance Canadian interests related to the oil sands.”  

EU Could Lose Credibility As World's Climate Leader

The European Union has set ambitious but necessary targets to reduce its production of global-warming greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 (based on 1990 levels). No other developed country including Canada has even come close to matching this. If the EU continues to import more bitumen it will undermine its credibility as a world leader on climate change, experts say.

“The landing of massive amounts of dirty tar sands to our shores runs counter to Europe’s stated aspirations to decarbonize transport and curtail its addiction to oil. European drivers will be forced to fill up their tanks with tar sands that will raise emissions – not lower them – and push up the costs of decarbonization by billions of euros,” says Laura Buffet of Transport & Environment.

Fives Years On, Fuel Quality Directive Still Not Implemented

For years, the EU has wanted to pass legislation encouraging European transport fuel suppliers to decrease the carbon footprint of their product. The Fuel Quality Directive confirms fuels produced from bitumen have a higher carbon footprint (12 to 40 per cent higher) than fuels from conventional oil. Because bitumen is a heavy unconventional tar-like oil it requires vastly more energy to extract and process, resulting in more greenhouse gases than conventional oil.

The Fuel Quality Directive would be a disincentive for purchasing highly polluting fuels, such as oilsands. Fearing a “dirty oil” label being slapped on Canadian bitumen if the Fuel Quality Directive is passed, the Canadian government has lobbied against it in a manner one EU politician describes as something never seen before:

“There have been massive lobbying campaigns by the car industry, by the chemicals industry, banks, food giants, etc. But so far I have not seen such a lobbying campaign by any state,” Satu Hassi, a Finnish Member of European Parliament told Reuters in 2012 about the Canadian lobbying against the directive.

7% of EU's Fuel Supply Could be Bitumen by 2020

With the Fuel Quality Directive still in limbo (the last vote on the directive ended in a stalemate), Spanish oil company Repsol’s bitumen shipment will most likely not be the last. Repsol has reportedly been investing in upgrading its refineries to process heavy bitumen. Much like Canada, very few refineries in the EU have the necessary refining equipment to turn bitumen into fuels.

“To the refiner, it’ll just be the price you can get and the product you get after refining it, so they wouldn’t care what the source is. They wouldn’t think about the carbon content at all,” Torbjørn Kjus, an oil analyst at DNB Markets told the RTCC news service.

A report earlier this year by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates bitumen could make up nearly seven per cent of the EU’s total transport fuel supply by 2020 if oilsands pipeline projects such as Keystone XL in the U.S. and Energy East from Alberta to Saint John, N.B., are approved. Combined, the two TransCanada pipelines could pump approximately two million barrels of bitumen every day. Much of this will be exported out of North America.

Image Credit: Transport Canada

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