The Canadian government is pursuing a policy of oil extraction from tar sands - also known as oil sands - in western provinces that are believed to contain the world’s largest source of oil after Saudi Arabia.
Ottawa has stepped up lobbying efforts in the EU, aimed in part at quashing pending legislation it says could hurt the tar sands industry.
Under proposed amendments to the Fuel Quality Directive, the EU would label the unconventional oil as some 20% more polluting than other fuel sources.
“We can’t deny that climate change is occurring. We can’t deny that the future of Mother Earth is in question,” said Chief Bill Erasmus, the northwest regional leader of the Assembly of First Nations, Canada’s body for its indigenous populations.
“And so the European Union is now saying that places like the tar sands can no longer continue as they have in the past," he told EurActiv in an interview. "We’re very happy this is occurring. We know that Canada is lobbying against that.”
The mining process requires huge amounts of energy, water and chemical solvents to extract oil from bitumen, a viscous substance found in sand and clay. Arsenic and other toxic compounds are often produced as byproducts of the extraction process, adding to concerns about land and water pollution.
Northwest indigenous people, including the Dene, of which Erasmus is the chief, live downstream from the extraction points. They complain that the influx of hazardous chemicals is damaging their way of life.
“And we have people who are now having to wrestle with new diseases like cancers, diabetes and so on. Our people are now not able to hunt and fish and trap like they used to so we are getting directly affected,” he said.
The EU’s review of the Fuel Quality Directive sets a 6% emissions reduction target for transport fuels. Under proposed amendments, the EU will rank fuel sources according to the carbon-intensity, with the greener varieties contributing more towards the 6% target. The EU proposal is to label oil extracted from tar sands as causing 22% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventionally-sourced oil.
A matter of discrimination?
Canada's response is that the EU is discriminating against its tar sands, claiming that the science on the lifecycle emissions from the extraction process is not robust enough to merit labeling them as more carbon intensive than conventional oil.
“That they have 20% higher greenhouse gas emissions is not true," said Jeffrey Sundquist, who heads the London office of Canada’s Alberta province. "The science does not support this, definitely.”
Sundquist told a 5 March conference in Brussels, attended by Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, that the EU was discriminating against Canada for its high transparency in reporting its CO2 emissions compared to other oil producing countries.
Hedegaard said: “We are not trying to punish. We are just trying to measure the environmental impact of fuels, nothing more, nothing less. We have been in dialogue with the Canadian government.”
The EU has halted its review of the fuel quality directive in part because of the divergent positions of member states. Many of Europe’s largest oil companies have major interests in the fields, including BP, Shell, Total, and Statoil.
Sundquist called for “transparent, verifiable data” before the EU committed itself to regulation that would effectively cripple the European market for oil from tar sands. Hedegaard responded that the science behind the fuel proposal was “very transparent” and based on the best available methodology.
The commissioner said the same methodology was used in impact assessments to measure the carbon intensity of different biofuel sources, but that those “vested interests” were not as strong.
Canadian indigenous groups have launched court proceedings against both the Alberta and Canadian government over the sands.
In 2011, in a case brought by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, a court ruled that provincial and national governments failed to protect populations of boreal caribou, which the indigenous population has traditionally relied on for food.
The court also upheld the indigenous population's special rights under a 1921 treaty with the United Kingdom, the colonial ruler of Canada, which supersedes the authority of today's Canadian government.
Canada's aboriginal people have special constitutional status and a considerable degree of governmental autonomy.
“In other words, as people that were never conquered or never defeated in war, the resource belongs to us,” said Erasmus, who was speaking from Germany, where he is on a lobbying tour to fight against the further development of tar sands.
“So the oil actually belongs to our people… The lands where the resource is actually being extracted is lands owned by our own people, legally. That’s a separate question that we have to sort out with the Crown in light of Canada.”
Tests have found arsenic as high as 453 times the acceptable levels in moose meat from caribou hunted near the tar sands. The Alberta government responded with an assessment that arsenic levels were “only” 17 to 33 times the acceptable levels.
High rates of cancer and concerns about water contamination worry the local population.
“People are very afraid to fish in Lake Athabasca, and the Great Slave Lake now and into the Mackenzie River," Erasmus said. “We’re finding we can no longer drink the water like we used to. When I was a child we would just dip the glass into the water and drink it. That cannot be done anymore. So the pristine environment is obviously changing.”