Petroleum products originating from destructive tar sands exploration in Canada are making their way onto the European market
The extraction of fuel from tar sands is an environmental disaster. If the European Commission fails to recognise the impact of tar sands extraction in the Fuel Quality Directive, it will seriously threaten efforts to fight climate change. We know that the European Union's Fuel Quality Directive aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It has the potential to encourage a significant shift towards a greener, less carbon intensive, transport system. But intensive lobbying by the Canadian government and other advocates of tar sands threaten the EU's right to legislate to fight climate change - and the progress which could be made towards a lower carbon future.
Tar sands - also known as oil sands - are a naturally occurring mixture of sand, clay, water and a dense viscous form of petroleum known as bitumen. The extraction of petroleum from tar sands is considerably more energy-intensive than for conventional oil. A recent study by a researcher at Stanford University, which was commissioned by the commission, found that typical tar sands "well-to-wheel" emissions are 23 per cent worse than those for conventional sources. In addition, extraction of tar sands in Canada has resulted in the destruction of vast areas of boreal forest, an important carbon sink and valuable ecological resource. Tar sands development is destroying the environment, poisoning water sources and displacing indigenous people.
At the present time, Canada is the only country which has a large-scale commercial oil sands industry. Production in Alberta, the Canadian province where the tar sands are located, is expected to increase from just over one million barrels per day in 2008 - to three million barrels per day in 2018. Much of this makes its way across the border to the United States. In 2010, a Greenpeace investigation found that tar sands are also finding their way onto the European market. Petroleum products, primarily diesel, are regularly exported to the EU from US Gulf Coast refineries that frequently process tar sands oil. This trade is set to increase rapidly if the planned Keystone XL pipeline, from Alberta to the Gulf coast refineries, goes ahead.
Tar sands have recently been on the agenda in Brussels because the EU and Canada are currently negotiating a free trade agreement, the "comprehensive economic and trade agreement" - known as CETA. One extremely worrying aspect of CETA is Canada's request to include an investor-to-state dispute process. Investors, such as multi-national oil companies extracting tar sands, would have new legal rights to challenge perfectly legitimate public health policies - such as attempts to better regulate tar sands development for social or environmental reasons. I have argued that this dispute mechanism, which could set a dangerous precedent for future EU trade deals, must be removed from the negotiating table.
In June, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on EU-Canada trade relations in which it "reiterated its concern about the impact of the extraction of oil sand on the global environment due to the high level of CO2 emissions during its production process and the threat it poses to local biodiversity". It also stated that "a state-to-state dispute settlement mechanism and the use of local judicial remedies are the most appropriate tools to address investment disputes". If the union wants to be consistent in its action to combat climate change, it needs to disincentivise the use of petroleum derived from tar sands. This is not only important in reducing the EU's own impacts on the climate, but also in setting an example which many other countries may follow. This is where the Fuel Quality Directive comes in.
The FQD was adopted in 2009. Under the directive, carbon emissions from the production process of different fuels must be reduced by 6 per cent between 2010 and 2020. To achieve this, the commission is in the process of establishing "default values" for fossil fuels, based on the energy intensity of their production. Environmental non-governmental organisations and many MEPs have consistently called on the commission to base the default value for tar sands on scientific evidence, which clearly shows that they are more energy intensive. Shamefully, the Canadian government has been lobbying hard to make sure this does not happen.
The Canadian government argues that allocating a specific value for tar sands in the FQD unfairly singles it out. This reasoning is completely wrong - other unconventional fuels have been included in the proposal since the start. In addition, the Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard has also confirmed that there will be opportunities to add further categories for high carbon conventional crude sources in the future, once the scientific data becomes available. If the EU seriously intends to reduce the carbon intensity of its transport fuel in a meaningful way, it needs to include a value for tar sands now. If we want to take meaningful action to reduce the impact that fuels have on the environment, the commission has to include an accurate value for tar sands when it comes to determining the implementing measures of the FQD. The EU must stand up to pressure from Canada and continue to legislate on ambitious, effective and scientifically-sound measures to combat climate change. Keith Taylor is the Green Party MEP for South East England, in the UK