Canada, Big Oil and the frequently and quietly delayed Fuel Quality Directive

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

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It’s March 2014, and we still don’t have a functioning Fuel Quality Directive, the only European law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport fuel, writes Laura Buffet.

Laura Buffet is a policy officer for clean fuels at Transport and Environment, a Brussels-based non-governmental organisation.

After 1181 days of delay, the lack of so-called ‘implementing rules’ matters a lot. These rules will determine whether Europe’s oil companies only blend in biofuels to reduce their emissions, or whether they will also look for the ‘cleanest’ possible fossil fuels, which are most certainly not tar sands, to name one example.

The FQD started its life as a Commission proposal in 2007, requiring oil companies to cut the carbon intensity of their products by 6% by 2020. This was in response to the growing emissions from Europe’s transport sector, which is set to be the biggest emitter after 2020. We have made a timeline of the FQD’s slow progress, here. But what is perhaps less known is the real story: a behind the scenes struggle between those intent on destroying the FQD and those trying to ensure its effective implementation.

From September 2009 to July 2011, Canada convened over 110 meetings (or five meetings per month) on tar sands and the FQD1. In October 2011, the European Commission released a balanced proposal for the implementing measures, with a higher value for unconventional sources of oil, including tar sands. In February 2012, after member states reached no decision either in favour or against the proposal, Canada continued to deploy its lobbying forces in the EU. In 2013, Canada’s energy minister and Alberta’s international relations and environment ministers rounded up the heavy lobbying campaign with personal visits to Brussels and European capitals to meet with high-level officials. With an oil product on average 23% dirtier than conventional oil, Canada’s intentions were made clear by Joe Oliver, then energy minister, now running the country’s economy: “You can have all the oil and gas in the world, but it’s not much good if you can’t get it to market [ …] Europe is the biggest single market in the world right now.”

But Canada and the oil industry’s advances have not gone unchallenged.

Environmental NGOs such as Transport & Environment have been calling for a rapid and ambitious implementation of the law. In parallel, more than 50 leading climate scientists from around the world have written to the European Commission, emphasising the scientific robustness of the Commission proposal. This scientific call was led by James Hansen, former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and Mark Jaccard, professor of energy economics at Simon Fraser University, who came to Brussels in May 2013 to explain the importance of a well-implemented FQD – not just for Europe, but for the entire world.

The scientific call has been echoed by spokespeople of indigenous populations in Canada, whose land and health are being damaged by the largest industrial project on the planet, the extraction of tar sands.

Last, but certainly not least, many Nobel Laureates and supporters of global peace and equality, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and activist Jody Williams, have written to the Commission in September 2013 highlighting the importance of full and effective implementation of the FQD in the global fight against climate change.

Members of the European Parliament, the democratically elected representatives of citizens, have also been very vocal and raised concerns about the lengthy delay of the FQD implementation. But with European elections scheduled for May, it now seems too late for the current Parliament to see the FQD fully implemented.   

Trapped in the middle of this dispute is the environment. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), two-thirds of all proven fossil fuel reserves, of which unconventional oil is the largest part, will have to stay in the ground, untouched, if we want to avoid catastrophic global warming above two degrees Celsius. This three year delay in implementing the FQD reflects the reluctance of oil companies to be accountable for the carbon footprint of the products they sell. The intense lobbying pressure put on the Commission by these companies and Canada shows how important the issue is. But without a strong FQD, emissions from dirty oil are projected to skyrocket. Tired of waiting, NGOs have had to take a legal action against the Commission. Eventually, it will have to release the implementing measures to be in conformity with the law. But after 1,181 days, we simply cannot afford to keep waiting. We need a proposal, now.

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