A placard with the Canadian flag rests on the ground co […]
A concerted lobbying campaign by the Canadian government is underway to undermine a proposal for a revision of a flagship EU law on climate change. Called the Fuel Quality Directive, it requires suppliers of petrol, diesel and gas oil to reduce the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from transport fuels they put on the market. The proposed amendment requests that suppliers cut the carbon footprint of their products by 6 percent by 2020 from the 2010 baseline.
A scientific study published early 2011 concluded that oil extracted from tar sands – also known as oil sands – cause 22 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventionally sourced oil, making it far more polluting than other forms of oil. On that basis, the European Commission assigned a default value of 107 grams of CO2 equivalent per megajoule (CO2eq/MJ) for oil produced from tar sands, compared to the 87.5g CO2eq/MJ average for other crude oils.
The concept of having one default value for conventional oil and one for tar sands has outraged the Canadians and international oil companies. Canada, home to the world’s third-largest oil reserves, almost all of which are in the form of tar sands, argues that the EU is discriminating against its tar sands, claiming that the science on the life-cycle emissions from the extraction process is not robust enough to merit labeling them as 20 percent more carbon intensive than conventional oil.
Since then, the Canadian government has engaged in one of the most vociferous public relations campaigns by a foreign government ever witnessed at the EU level, doing everything in its power to undermine and delay the EU proposal. The public relations campaign has included the launch of new studies, carefully crafted messages, visits from Canadian and Albertan politicians to Europe, constant lobbying of European parliamentarians and the European Commission and lobby tours for EU decision makers to the tar sands region in Alberta.
The Canadians have also been lobbying EU member states where oil majors active in Canada such as Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Total are based — with some success, apparently. The United Kingdom government has been giving secret support at the very highest levels to Canada’s campaign against European penalties on its tar sands fuel.
In January 2012, a British newspaper revealed a secret compromise plan that would weaken the impact on tar sands oil, this time from the Netherlands, home of Shell. Total in France and ENI in Italy also have tar sands interests and those nations are believed to be opposed to the EU plan.
Canada’s Alberta province is believed to contain almost 85 percent of the world’s bitumen oil sand reserves and the government is pursuing an intense policy of oil extraction from these tar sands. The extraction and processing of these heavy oils requires huge amounts of energy, water and chemical solvents, though. Additionally, arsenic and other toxic compounds are often produced as byproducts of the extraction process, adding to concerns about land, air and water pollution.
Environmental groups argue that exploitation of the tar sands is catastrophic for global climate, as well as causing serious air and water pollution in Alberta. These processes “pollute the Athabasca River, lace the air with toxins and convert farmland into wasteland; large areas of the Boreal forest are clearcut to make way for development in the tar sands,” Greenpeace Canada writes.
Greenpeace is also concerned with the social and health costs of the tar sands. Indigenous people live downstream from the extraction points. They complain that the influx of hazardous chemicals is damaging their traditional way of life. First Nations communities also report unusually high levels of rare cancers and autoimmune diseases.
Bill Erasmus is regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations and the national chief of the Dene, a Canadian indigenous group. He is currently on a lobbying tour in Europe to fight against the further development of tar sands.
“We get affected because when they mine it, they use a great deal of chemicals and these chemicals are toxic and they are put into huge ponds, called tailings ponds. They leach into the environment and come downstream to us. And we have people who are now wrestling with new diseases like cancers, diabetes and so on. Our people are now not able to hunt and fish and trap like they used to so we are getting directly affected,” he says in an interview with the European daily, Euractiv.
Canada’s Indigenous people have special constitutional status and a considerable degree of governmental autonomy. They have a constitutional right to consultation and the accommodation of their interests. The Assembly of First Nations, which represents about 300,000 people, now considers that Stephen Harper’s conservative government is not respecting their rights and they are fighting back. They declare themselves happy with the EU’s decision: “The European Union is now saying that places producing oil from tar sands can no longer continue as they have in the past, if they want to sell their oil to Europe,” Bill Erasmus adds.
Europe imports very little of the unconventional fuel but Canada fears that an EU decision will influence other markets, such as the United States and China. The Canadians are essentially trying to derail European climate protection measures to protect their interests elsewhere, primarily in America. The United States is Canada’s primary market for tar sands; since 1999, Canada has been the largest supplier of crude and refined oil for the U.S. market.
Undermining scientific evidence
On the other hand, “if Canada, which recently withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, is successful in watering down EU laws on emissions allowed from fuels it will open the door to oil sands-derived fuels in Europe and seriously undermine Europe’s fight against climate change,” Darek Urbaniak of Friends of the Earth Europe says.
The Canadian government’s strategy is to try to undermine independent scientific studies over tar sands to delay action. They have attacked their critics for being ill-informed and emotional, whilst saying they stick to the science and the facts. At the same time, the Canadians are promoting studies from a research institute that mainly works for the oil industry.
But environmentalists say there is a body of scientific evidence supporting the EU view that oil sands crude is more carbon-intensive than oil from other sources. “The problem is when democratically elected governments undermine a peer reviewed independent scientific evidence, undermining credibility of European scientists and research institutions,” Darek Urbaniak from Friend of the Earth Europe says.
In Canada itself, climate scientists say they have been persecuted against. “What we’re seeing emerge in Canada is the dismantling of scientific institutions that have been in place for decades. These institutions have played important roles in ensuring the health, safety and welfare of the Canadian public. But who needs science when it can sometimes lead to inconvenient results?” Andrew Weaver, a Canadian scientist asks in his blog.
He goes on writing: “It’s also evident to me that the Harper government has an agenda: mortgage our future to maximize short-term profits from the tar sands. And in order to fast track implementation, they squash or remove any obstacles that might slow things down. Is shutting down key groups involved in pollution research and monitoring really in the best interest of the public? I think not.”
The problem has apparently reached such proportions that some consider that Canada “has now officially entered a Dark Age for science.”
The intense Canadian lobbying has forced the European Commission to halt its review of the Fuel Quality Directive and undertake an impact assessment on its proposed Directive. The delay has been so great that a decision by the European Council will not be made until later this year. In the meantime, the Canadian lobbying effort is likely to continue unabated.