Commission scraps plan to label tar sands as polluting

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

The European Commission Tuesday (7 October) proposed scrapping a mandatory requirement to label tar sands oil as highly polluting, after years of industry opposition.

The new proposal abandons one obstacle to Canada shipping crude from tar sands to Europe, and is likely to draw strong criticism from environmental campaigners and Green politicians.

Last June, EURACTIV reported about the draft European Commission proposal.

It is suggested in a revised draft law, how refiners should report the carbon intensity of the fuel they supply.

The debate about labelling tar sands, also known as oil sands, dates back to 2009, when EU member states approved legislation with the aim of cutting greenhouse gases from transport fuel sold in Europe by 6% by 2020, but failed to agree how to implement it.

In 2011, the European Union executive agreed that tar sands should be given a carbon value a fifth higher than for conventional oil. However, member states could not agree, and the Commission has been reconsidering the proposal ever since.

Confirming a draft seen by Reuters earlier this year, the proposal released on Tuesday only requires refiners to report an average of the feedstock used. They do not have to single out tar sands.

>> Read: EU proposal scraps mandatory ‘dirty’ label for tar sands

It retains, however, a method for calculating the carbon intensity of different fuel types over their lifecycle.

“It is no secret that our initial proposal could not go through, due to resistance faced in some member states,” Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said in a statement.

“However, the Commission is today giving this another push, to try and ensure that in the future, there will be a methodology and thus an incentive to choose less polluting fuels over more polluting ones like, for example, oil sands.”

Oil sands crude, exploited by the major oil firms, such as BP Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil, costs more to produce than conventional crude, and uses more energy, water and emits more carbon over its lifecycle.

Found in clay-like sands, it has to be dug up in open-pit mines with massive shovels, or blasted with steam and pumped to the surface, before oil can be extracted.

The revised proposal still has to be debated by member states through a fast-track procedure meant to take less than two months. It also needs a sign off from the European Parliament.

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.

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