First tar sands shipment to Europe sparks protests

Protest in Bilbao []

EXCLUSIVE / Anti-tar sands demonstrations have begun outside a Spanish refinery that will receive the first major European shipment of Canada’s tar sands next week, and activists are refusing to rule out direct action to stop it.

The 600,000 barrels of Western Canada Select (WCS) heavy blend crude, is being shipped by the Spanish oil company Repsol to the port of Bilbao, from where it will be taken to a nearby refinery in a heavily-populated area.

Europe currently imports around 4,000 barrels per day (bpd) of tar sands, but studies suggest that could rocket to 700,000 bpd by 2020, due to the planned Keystone XL pipeline linking Alberta’s tar sands fields to Texas.

On 29 May, around 50 green activists and local people staged an impromptu demonstration outside the Bilbao refinery, after rumours spread that the highly-polluting fuel shipment had already arrived.

“This was just the first mobilisation,” Mariano González, a spokesman for the group Ecologistas en Acción told EURACTIV. “We are now in contact with the local citizens platforms who don’t agree with the pollution, and we expect to strengthen our activities, and organise bigger protests against any future shipments.”

Thousands of people live around the refinery and activists are not ruling out diverse tactics to try to halt the heavy crude delivery. “We are very proud of the action,” González said, “but if we had had more time to organise, we would have tried to do something with more people that would have had more repercussions and impact.”

The protests are supported by green groups including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Transport and Environment.

“Tar sands are deadly for our climate and must be kept in the ground and out of Europe,” said Colin Roche of Friends of the Earth Europe. “To give a lifeline to this dangerous industry is to set us up for climate disaster.”

Pilot project

Repsol says that its fuel cargo is being delivered as part of a pilot project to determine whether bulk imports are feasible, and rejects residents’ concerns about local pollution.

“This crude produces no more emissions from refining than any other crude of similar characteristics,” Kristian Rix, a Repsol spokesman told EURACTIV, adding that record investments in Repsol’s refining system had reduced emissions 16% since 2011, with plans for a further 6% cut by 2016.

In other parts of the world, tar sands refining facilities have been linked to increased cancer incidences near plants, and also to respiratory ailments such as asthma, cardiovascular illness, heart attacks, lung dysfunction and even premature death.

“Repsol takes the environment very seriously,” Rix said, “it is something the company spends a lot of money on” and this has been publicised. But he dead-balled a question on why the firm was then importing tar sands, one of the most polluting of all crudes.

“You will have to ask the extractors,” he said. “I just source the crude so I don’t control the metrics of how many emissions are produced.”

Attempts by the EU to quantify the emissions from tar sands’ energy-intensive extraction process – and ensure that its price reflects this – have triggered threats of a trade war from Canada, and proved divisive within the bloc itself.

A revision of the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) – which mandates a 6% reduction in the greenhouse gas intensity of EU fuels by 2020 – is currently blocked in the corridors of the Commission’s Berlaymont building, even though an impact assessment was finished last August.

Washington has also raised concerns about the FQD revision in the context of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment partnership (TTIP) negotiations, as up to 30 of its diesel-refined fuels for export to the EU may be blended with Canadian tar sands.

New Access to Information revelations

Internal EU documents obtained by Friends of the Earth in an Access to Information application show that the US Mission in Brussels requested a meeting with cabinet members in the Commission’s energy directorate (DG Energy) on the subject last October.

“The US Mission informed us formally that the US authorities have… substantive concerns about the existing proposal (the singling out of two crudes – Canada and Venezuela),” says the internal cabinet-level email, which EURACTIV has seen.

“They are particularly concerned about the workability of the current proposal on the table considering the supply chain,” the missive continues. The US diplomats had “a real problem” with ‘Option 1’ in the Impact Assessment, which pitches a method for calculating fossil fuel emissions, it said.

Equally, they “were concerned to signal there (sic) concern as they had heard that a proposal could be made imminently by DG CLIM (the Commission’s climate directorate).”

EURACTIV understands that Canada has pressured the US to act against the EU but while no FQD proposal was on the table, Washington saw little point in weathering the international storm that could result from a heavy-handed response.

The internal DG Energy email concludes with a highlighted passage, suggesting fear within the Commission that a proposal could be forthcoming. “Of immediate concern for the Cabinet is to know the exact procedure from now on and in particular whether DG CLIM are obliged to go for a formal inter-service in the Commission,” it says.

No inter-service consultation – the precursor to official publication – has yet begun and the FQD remains mired in the long grass, slated for deletion in 2020 under the terms of the 2030 climate and energy proposal.

The focus of the transatlantic battle for tar sands may be about to shift to the streets of Bilbao.

On 4 October 2011, the European Commission college 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 of the higher carbon intensity associated with the oil extraction process. The EU’s move led to protests from North America.

Last July, the US trade representative Michael Froman told a Congressional House Ways and Means Committee hearing that the FQD guidance on tar sands was “discriminatory, environmentally unjustified and could constitute a barrier to US-EU trade.”

“We continue to press the Commission to take the views of stakeholders, including US refiners under consideration as they finalise these amendments,” he said.

In March of this year, Dan Mullaney, the assistant US trade representative for Europe confirmed to EURACTIV that: “we are [still] discussing the Fuel Quality Directive with the EU”.

EU documents seen by EURACTIV in 2012 show that Canada too has “raised the issue in the context of EU-Canada negotiations on a free trade agreement.” Canada’s natural resources minister, Joe Oliver, also wrote to the EU’s energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger warning that the directive was “discriminatory and potentially violates the European Union’s international trade obligations.”

But the EU had appeared to stand firm in the face of such weighty gambits. As recently as a year ago, the EU’s climate action commissioner, Connie Hedegaard insisted that “trade must not be used as an excuse to prevent environment progress.”

  • 2020: Deadline for EU to reduce greenhouse gas intensity of transport fuels by 6%

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