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EU: Drawing a Line in the Tar Sands?

A controversial move to prohibit oil imported from what’s been called the world’s dirtiest fuel source could be an example for the rest of us.

EU Flag photo courtesy of European Parliament

Photo courtesy of European Parliament.

Tar sands imports to the EU could be banned altogether after the EU Commission on Climate Change backed new greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standards as part of the Fuel Quality Directive first adopted in 2009. Pursuant to the directive’s original goal of a 6 percent reduction of CO2 emissions from transport fuel production by 2020, the new standards set values for each fuel based on estimated grams of CO2 released per megajoule of energy produced. 

They set a much higher emissions value for tar sands oil than conventional oil production, making oil produced in Canada's controversial sands an unviable option if the directive’s goals are to be achieved. [1]

Although tar sands oil is not a major import to the EU, the move reveals a sharp contrast between international business interests and environmental realities, and would set a precedent for future bans on other controversial fuels—including shale gas, whose extraction process is known as fracking.

EU member states will vote in just a few weeks on the directive, which could be blocked by two nations that have expressed opposition: the UK and the Netherlands. Britain’s Under Secretary for the Department of Transport, Norman Baker, said in a September 26 letter that he would oppose the inclusion of the tar sands in the directive, The Guardian reported. Incidentally, the UK recently began drilling for domestic shale gas reserves, which could also be threatened if the emissions standards are eventually extended to non-transport fuels.

The new policy could also be an example for President Obama, who will have a similar opportunity to halt or give the go-ahead to TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline.

Opposition to the proposal quickly came from across the Atlantic as well. The multiple tar sands projects in the lower Athabasca region of northern Alberta, Canada, currently comprise the world’s most significant production of crude oil from tar sands. According to the Calgary Herald, Canada’s Natural Resources Minister, Joe Oliver, has threatened to lodge a complaint with the World Trade Organization against the EU if its members “discriminate against the oil sands.” Oliver’s accusation, however, is unfounded because EU standards include other high emissions transport fuels, such as shale oil and liquefied coal.

The controversy around the tar sands is not about whether they are bad for the earth's habitat, but whether evidence can definitively show they will be critically and irredeemably bad. Since 1999, environmental advocacy groups have cautioned that there is not enough information available to understand the cumulative impact of all the tar sands projects. The Canadian government did not respond until 2010, when it set up a panel of independent experts who verified the concerns of advocacy groups. In July 2011, a long overdue environmental monitoring system was initiated to document impacts on biodiversity, air, and water in the Athabasca region.

A report released by Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development made clear some of what is understood about the projects:

“The federal government has reported that oil sands projects are among the largest and fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. The federal government has also reported that air pollutants from oil sands projects have more than doubled in the last decade. For the first time, this pollution has led to acid rain, putting at risk freshwater lakes and boreal forests in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan and, perhaps, in the Northwest Territories.”

The EU commission’s fuel quality directive is a rare opportunity for government to set limits on the production of destructive fuels without a level of evidence that would take years of comprehensive environmental monitoring to acquire—the kind of monitoring Canada has failed to provide for more than a decade.

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If passed, the new policy could also be an example for President Obama, who will have a similar opportunity to draw the line with a vote that will either halt or give the go-ahead to TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline—a proposed project that will pump tar sands oil from northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, threatening ecosystems across the full expanse of North America.

Darek Urbaniak, extractive industries campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, stated, “The EU Commission has sent a clear message to Canadian and U.S. policymakers that Europe does not want dirty fossil fuels. This is a bold step towards climate protection and is in defiance of unprecedented lobbying by the Canadian government and by the oil industry. Hopefully this decision indicates the beginning of the end of the drive toward unconventional fossil fuels development.”


Robert MellingerRobert Mellinger wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions for a just and sustainable world. Robert is a former YES! intern.

1. The proposed value for tar sands oil is 107 grams of CO2 per megajoule compared with 87.5 for conventional oil production.

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