Activist MEPs put tar sands ‘dirty label’ back on the agenda

Tar sands, Alberta. Canada, 2008. [Howl Arts Collective/Flickr]

EU lawmakers have relaunched a plan to stigmatise Canada’s tar sands on Wednesday (3 December), despite years of Ottawa’s lobbying the EU bloc as part of its export drive.

European Parliament lawmakers put the plans back on the agenda by voting against the EU executive’s proposal to abandon the scheme.

“With this proposal, Europe is deliberately opening up its market for dirty fuels, such as tar sands from Canada,” said Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, a Dutch member of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, who initiated Wednesday’s vote.

“This decision is weakening our position in the fight against climate change. Especially now that we are negotiating a global deal on climate change, it sends completely the wrong signal,” Gerbrandy said in a statement.

The resolution was passed by the Parliament’s Environment Committee, meaning it still has to get through a full session of the European Parliament in the coming weeks in order to force the European Commission to come up with a new proposal. Getting plenary agreement would be much harder than clearing a committee.

In October, the executive Commission published a new plan for reporting the greenhouse gas intensity of transport fuels, which removed a requirement to have separate values for different types of oil.

>> Read: Commission scraps plan to label tar sands as polluting

That meant tar sands, also known as oil sands, would no longer have to be differentiated from conventional crude, with lower overall greenhouse gas emissions, and that it would make it much easier for the unconventional oil to reach the European market.

Canada and representatives of the oil industry have said unconventional oil has a valuable role in diversifying EU supplies and that Canada’s huge deposits of oil sands, being developed by oil majors such as ExxonMobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell, were being unfairly singled out by the original EU plan.

They welcomed the revised Commission proposal in October.

Environmentalists and some politicians cite research findings that over its life-cycle oil sands crude emits more carbon dioxide because of the amount of energy required to separate the crude from the bituminous deposits in which they are found.

“If the EU is serious about tackling climate change it should discourage the development of these highly greenhouse-gas-intensive unconventional fossil fuels,” said Gerbrandy.

Bas Eickhout, a Green MEP from the Netherlands, who co-sponsored the rejection, welcomed the vote:

"In voting for this rejection, MEPs have voted against easing the way for tar sands oil to enter the European market. Despite the spin, tar sands oil has nothing to do with European energy security but is instead merely about placating the Canadian government in the context of the EU-Canada trade agreement. We do not need this highly-polluting fuel and we should not be encouraging its production."

"Tar sands oil should not and cannot be part of the European fuel mix," Eickhout added, saying the bigger picture in the debate was the future of the fuel quality directive itself. "Today's vote should be seen as the basis for providing a robust methodology for EU fuel quality rules beyond 2020," he said in a statement.

FuelsEurope, an industry group representing retail fuel suppliers and refiners such as Shell, Total, and ENI, issued a statement saying it "regrets" the Parliament committee vote. The rejection of the Commission plan "will create huge uncertainty" for fuels suppliers seeking to comply with the fuel quality directive's obligation to achieve a 6% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from fuels by 2020, it said.

"The legislative process to define a methodology for FQD article 7a will have to be started all over again," FuelsEurope added, warning that it will leave fuel suppliers without a methodology to account for greenhouse gas reductions from transport fuels.

The EU’s Fuel Quality Directive requires that energy providers reduce by 6% the greenhouse gas emissions of the fuel they put on the market, through methods such as reducing flaring or increased use of biofuels.

On 4 October 2011, the European Commission voted on a review of the Fuel Quality Directive which assigns a default value 107 grams CO2 equivalent per megajoule (CO2eq/MJ) for oil produced from tar sands.

This figure is higher than the 87.5g CO2eq/MJ average assigned for other crude oils, because the Stanford University research for the EU showed that oil extraction from tar sands was more carbon intensive. But it led Canada, which has the world’s largest reserves of oil sands, to protest the EU’s action.

Other unconventional sources of fossil fuel would also be hit hard by the proposal, with oil shale being included at a value of 131.3 CO2eq/MJ, and coal-to-liquid at 172 CO2eq/MJ.

Canada, oil majors and the refining industry have fiercely opposed EU plans to label tar sands as highly polluting.

In the context of the Russia/Ukraine crisis and fears about European energy security, Canada argues Europe should be embracing its oil as a secure form of energy.

  • 15-18 Dec.: European Parliament plenary session

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