Canada’s tar sands charm offensive hits the rocks

  

EXCLUSIVE / A Canadian bid to persuade EU policymakers to soften proposed fuel quality laws has come unstuck, with one Canadian minister publicly disputing her government’s admission that tar sands are damaging Ottawa’s image abroad, and MEP's complaining about "undiplomatic power plays".

Ottawa has intensely lobbied EU states for years over plans to tag oil from its highly-polluting tar sands – also known as oil sands – as more polluting than crude, under a stalled review of the Fuel Quality Directive, which sets a 6% emissions reduction target for transport fuels.

An EU impact assessment intended to break the logjam is due out this spring, and two ministers from the Canadian province of Alberta are visiting 11 EU countries this month to make the case that tar sands use can help tackle climate change.

But fallout from the ongoing row over the fuel’s environmental impact has been taxing minds in Ottawa, according to documents obtained by Friends of the Earth under access-to-information laws. 

In one heavily redacted email, detailing a high-level meeting between British and Canadian diplomats, Gordon Campbell, the Canadian High Commissioner to the UK, described tar sands as “a totemic issue, hitting directly on Brand Canada”.

The fuel is increasingly unpopular closer to home, as Canadian First Nations groups stage hunger strikes and civil disobedience against tar sands facilities and speculation mounts that US President Barack Obama may bar a pipeline carrying the fuel.

However, Alberta’s environment minister, Diana McQueen, gave EurActiv a blunt denial when asked if she thought that tar sands had hurt Canada’s image. 

“I don’t think it’s been damaging,” she said, “because we’ve actually taken some very strong movements to move forward, with regard to monitoring and making sure that our science advisors are science-based.”

Canada has faced heavy criticism for cutting climate science budgets, shutting Arctic climate research stations, sacking climate researchers, and forbidding those that remain from talking freely to the media. 

Before it withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, Ottawa acknowledged deliberately excluding data showing a 20% increase in annual tar sands pollution from its 2009 UN greenhouse gas inventory.

However, in Alberta, “we are very serious about our climate change strategy,” McQueen insisted. “We develop industry in our province in an environmentally sustainable way.”

One MEP on the EU-Canada trade subcommittee told EurActiv that the tar sands issue was corroding Canada’s environmental reputation.

“There’s no doubt about it,” said Bernd Lange, a socialist. “Sustainability criteria and scientific results should be the basis for discussions between partners, not undiplomatic power plays.”

Trade retaliation threats

In past below-the-radar lobby forays, Ottawa raised threats of trade retaliation against the EU if it proceeded with its largely symbolic plans to price fuel from the sands according to its greenhouse gas emissions, as estimated by the Stanford University academic Adam Brand.

This time, Canadian officials have instead promoted a study by the California-based Jacobs Consultancy which, they say, estimates tar sands emissions as being 12% higher than conventional crude, rather than at least 22% higher, as Brand did.

Another newly released letter by the Albertan Premier Alison Redford to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, seen by EurActiv, blasts the science and methodologies used by the EU, for containing “significant technical shortcomings”.

As currently drafted, the EU’s proposal “is designed to discriminate uniquely against Alberta's energy production,” the letter says, again raising the spectre of a WTO suit. A Canadian diplomat at a press briefing on 22 January added that in the trade realm, there could be "unintended consequences" for the EU if it did not change its draft law.

Barroso’s curt reply to the Reynolds letter – that EU process was ongoing and he looked forward to further discussions with Ottawa – irked environmentalists, who pegged it to a pattern.

“The EU’s scientists are being continuously undermined by the Canadians,” said Darek Urbaniak, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth Europe. “Why aren’t the EU’s politicians standing up for European researchers and institutions?”

Energy superpower

Canada’s tar sands are the world’s third largest fossil fuel reserve and a central component of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s strategy for turning the country into an “energy superpower”. 

But the nascent giant’s feet could be tied if the United States decides in late March to abandon plans for a controversial keystone XL pipeline for ferry oil from the tar sands to Texas.

Obama’s inaugural speech comments promising a response to the threat of climate change have buoyed environmentalist’s spirits, and massive anti-Keystone protests are expected in Washington later this month.

In Canada too, indigenous peoples are threatening to barricade highways leading to tar sands facilities in Fort McMurray, in protest at a legislative bill called C-45, which alters six existing environmental laws, and the Canadian Indian Act, removing environmental protections on First Nation lands. 

Letters obtained by Greenpeace, under access-to-information laws, showed that many of C-45’s key provisions were hard lobbied for by the Canadian oil industry, on the surprising basis that Ottawa’s environmental laws were “almost entirely focused on preventing bad things from happening.” 

The tar sands process is highly energy-intensive and has created waste lakes containing 830 million cubic metres of hydrocarbon residues, which now reportedly cover 176 square kilometres of Albertan land.

A less carbon-intensive power supply for the industry may soon be offered by Toshiba, which is developing underground ‘mini-nuclear reactors’ to power Alberta’s tar sands industry, according to Japanese media reports.

Positions: 

It´s crystal-clear that Albertan ministers were in Brussels this week because the EU is not backing down on the robust science that demonstrates that tar sands are dirtier," Nuša Urbančič, the fuels programme manager for the green think tank Transport and Environment told EurActiv . "Instead of lobbying the EU hard for having the same treatment as conventional oil, they should put their energy into cleaning up the production of their high-carbon oil.”

Speaking at a press briefing in Brussels, Alberta's Environment Minister Diana McQueen said: "In Alberta, we've always been in support of the Fuel Quality Directive's intent. Where we have issues is in the implementation, so for us it's about the oil sands not being unfairly targeted. If we treat a basket of crudes fairly and monitor and evaluate them on a continuum, that’s all we ask for. We ask why the oil sands from Alberta would be singled out and unfairly discriminated against, especially if the intent is truly about climate change and reducing emissions in the EU, why would not all crudes be looked at, especially those which may not be as transparent in their reporting? Don’t punish us for providing that information. The intent [of the FQD] we support, but we ask that we not be discriminated against in the EU region."

Friends of the Earth's executive campaigns coordinator, Darek Urbaniak, told EurActiv that the different measuring stick the EU wanted to apply were justified by scientific research. However, "my feeling is that european politicians are tired of issue already but theyre not doing enough to stop it," he said. "We have the whole process in place, the values in place, and we should just go ahead with the impact assessment. Dragging things out is just opening the EU up to more criticisms from the Canadians and industry. We would expect someone from the Commission in DG Clima or Envi or the Joint Research Centre to put a statement out in the media, saying: 'We are doing the right thing; don’t undermine our work'. The commission is not defending itself."

Timeline: 
  • Late March 2013: US expected to decide whether to proceed with Keystone XL pipeline, bringing oil from Albertan tar sands to Texas
  • Spring 2013: EU Impact Assessment into the Fuel Quality Directive expected
  • October 2013: Environment Council may vote on the Fuel Quality Directive
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