Europe must resist Canada’s tar sands PR machine

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Europe should remain firm in its target to stay away from high-carbon oil and resist the pressure from some Canadian tar sands lobbies, writes Pieter De Pous from the European Environmental Bureau.

Pieter De Pous is policy director at the European Environmental Bureau in Brussels (EEB). The following was sent exclusively to EURACTIV.

"Canada’s expensive efforts to counter Europe’s work on fighting climate change and to persuade EU leaders that importing oil from controversial Canadian tar sands is a good idea must be stopped in its tracks. Tar sands have only recently been considered part of the world’s oil reserves as higher oil prices and new technologies have meant they have become profitable. However they are incredibly energy intensive and their production emits two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases than that of conventional oil.

Under the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive, oil suppliers are obliged to take measures that will reduce the carbon intensity of their fuels 6% by 2020. A major problem for tar sands is that if the total emissions of oil extraction are taken into account, as it should under this directive, tar sands will fail to be an attractive proposition. Quite the opposite in fact.

A few weeks ago, Canadian natural resources minister Joe Oliver attacked global environmental groups for ‘lecturing Canadians’ on using natural resources, which is ironic considering the millions being pumped into the Canada’s global oil sands PR machine.  Beyond the very real risks of oil spills, the global community has every right to take note of the climate risks involved in a massive fossil fuel intensive project which will be around for decades to come.

Climate change stops at no borders. We only have to look at the Maldives and across central Africa to see that.

The truth is, this is not about environmentalists taking ‘radical’ positions. It is the fact that we will lock ourselves into carbon intensive markets for decades. The continued production of Canadian tar sands will delay the development of cleaner alternatives – the longer Canada produces these highly polluting hydrocarbons, the less focus there will be on creating the low carbon economy. While Canada was on its PR offensive chasing the big bucks, world leaders sat in Durban discussing a global deal on fighting climate change. The head of the International Energy Agency – hardly a radical group – had a simple message:

“The door to achieving our objectives is rapidly closing, and while I strongly urge an agreement on emissions, I have a simple message for participants in these talks: Don’t wait for a global deal. Act now. You can and should implement robust policies that will give your citizens affordable, reliable access to energy in a sustainable way.”

While the European Union has been patting itself on the back for catalysing progress at Durban, some of its own energy ministers have been undermining the robust policies the IEA called for by opposing measures to account for tar sands in the Fuel Quality Directive.

Canadian Government's own advisory body predicted costs of climate change to hit up to $43 billion a year in 40 years, saddling the next generation of Canadians with a burden that makes the current economic crisis look like walk in the park.

The cancellation of the Keystone project is a clear message that business as usual can no longer be accepted and that it is time to change tact. The millions of dollars pumped into the tar sands PR machine would be far better spent on following the path towards cleaner, innovative energy sources. The narrow interests of one section of Canadian business cannot be allowed to dash the interests of the billions of global citizens.

So how does this affect the EU and what can be done here to ensure that Canada acts in the best interests of future generations, not in the interest of those who just want to make a quick – and highly damaging – quick buck?

The EU’s national energy experts meet on this issue on February 23. They must resist a push to water down the strength of the directive coming from the UK and the Netherlands – both countries that have self-interest in Canada principally though BP and Shell.

Rather than doing the bidding of the Canadians in Europe, both the UK and the Netherlands should back the Commission proposals as an important contribution to ensuring the continent gets on track to achieving its 80-95% emissions reduction goal by 2050.

The directive was created by Europe’s leaders in 2008 as an effective watchdog to keep high-carbon oil out of Europe. Without accounting for tar sands it remains toothless. Now is the time to give that watchdog teeth."

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