The European Parliament and member states are getting closer to clinching an agreement on changes to EU-wide specifications for petrol, diesel and gas-oil aimed at protecting human health and the environment, Socialist MEP Dorette Corbey said during a debate in Parliament's Environment Committee on 29 January.
"It looks like Council is moving to our direction," she said, garnering support from fellow MEPs to initiate negotiations with the Council on a first-reading deal amending the existing Fuel Quality Directive. According to Corbey, the Slovenian Presidency should decide on 5 February whether to accept the offer.
One of the main issues at stake is whether binding "sustainability criteria" should be included in the Directive, which notably aims to promote increased use of biofuels by requiring all fuel suppliers to cut greenhouse gas emissions produced by their fuels throughout their life-cycle by 10% between 2011 and 2020.
Such criteria are also being proposed in a draft directive on renewables, presented by the Commission on 23 January, but Corbey has argued that those criteria are unlikely to be in place sufficiently early to prevent fuel makers from investing in environmentally harmful biofuels, blamed for provoking food price hikes, deforestation and water shortages.
Her report further defends stronger standards than those proposed by the Commission, demanding that biofuels deliver life-cycle CO2 savings of at least 50% compared to fossil fuels - rather than the 35% suggested in the renewables directive - in order for them to count towards the EU's target of raising the share of biofuels in transport from current levels of around 2% to 10% by 2020.
In a parallel vote in the Economic and Monetary affairs committee, MEPs gave their backing to Commission plans to raise minimum taxes on diesel to the same level as those applied to petrol (EurActiv 14/03/07). The committee explained: "Since diesel and petrol have similar impacts, especially from the point of view of CO2 emissions, there is no environmental reason for the two minimum rates to differ." The measure also aims to put an end to "fuel tourism" across Europe, whereby truck drivers and coaches drive extra miles to fill up their tanks in the cheapest countries, causing extra pollution.
MEPs also suggested that countries with the highest tax rates should be prevented from increasing their taxes further until 2015 in order to accommodate recent rises in fuel price. Setting a maximum tax rate is a key demand from the road transport industry, which says no convergence in tax rates will be achieved otherwise.
"The Commission proposal has all the disadvantages of raising costs for transport operators, businesses and consumers but none of the advantages that would come from eliminating distortions of competition. Nor will it have any effect on the environment," stressed the head of EU fiscal affairs at the International Road Transport Union (IRU), Damian Viccars, who believes the "tank tourism" phenomenon is being "greatly exaggerated".
As usual with taxation matters, Parliament's role is purely consultative and member states will have to thrash out the details of the plan among themselves, with countries with low tax levels like Luxembourg and the central and eastern member states likely to put up a fight.