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Editor’s blog – Should Europe discriminate against ‘dirty’ tar sands oil?

By Dean Carroll

Taking a detour from discussions about Syria, Ukraine and Barack Obama’s first visit to Brussels – now scheduled for March – the other hot topic at Policy Review towers this week is tar sands. European leaders are yet to make a final decision on whether to amend the EU Fuel Quality Directive. Will carbon-intensive oil drawn from Canadian tar sands be labelled as ‘dirty’ – in an attempt to encourage ethical fuel buying? Or will corporate interests rank above environmental concerns?

Permanently outlawing tar sands would have major ramifications for European trade relations with Canada and the country had already indicated in the past that it was willing to take the dispute all the way to the World Trade Organisation. Meanwhile, respected NASA scientist James Hansen has consistently warned us all that full development of the Canadian tar sands in the Alberta province – the second largest fossil fuel reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia’s oil fields – would mean it was “game over” for the earth’s climate.

Greenpeace’s European Union transport policy director Franziska Achterberg echoed the alarm, adding: “Canada’s politicians and their best friends from Shell and BP are desperate to open up new markets for their polluting oil. They have used all the tricks in the book. If Europe fails to stand by its laws, it will allow a flood of tar sands to wreck its carbon footprint.

The EU directive had called for a 6 per cent cut in emissions from transport fuel by 2020 with the rules classing tar sands as more polluting than conventional oil. In effect, this would prevent imports of tar sands into the continent. But last week, the European Commission refused to set new emission reductions targets beyond 2030. Many green groups suspect that this was an underhand move to open the door to tar sands in the future.

Friends of the Earth extractive campaigner Colin Roche said: “Trying to reduce the carbon emissions from our fuels by importing more of the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel in commercial production makes no sense. We need to keep tar sands out of Europe.” In contrast, some scientists claim that full exploration of the tar sands would only boost the average global temperature by roughly 0.36 °C. Even so, this would still be approximately half of the global warming seen over the last century. And there is no doubt about the brutal impact on the natural habitat. The opencast mining techniques leave nothing behind except a scarred landscape that resembles the surface of Mars.

However, we do know that many European oil companies have major tar sands interests including BP, Shell and Total. Industry analysts predict that tar sands exploration could go on for at least another 30 years before reserves are exhausted. In the pro-camp – Kathryn Marshall of the campaign website EthicalOil.org has suggested that Europe should be embracing tar sands oil, rather than buying the fossil fuel from rogue states in the Middle East.

In an article for The Huffington Post, she wrote: “The last thing that Europe, or any market, should be doing – especially right now – is working to harm Canada’s oil sands. Rather than voting on whether to punish Canadian oil, they should be doing their best to figure out how they can start finally moving off OPEC’s conflict oil and switching to Canada’s ethical oil instead.”

Strong words, indeed, and the sort of muscular language that could push the necessary three quarters majority of member states into the pro-tar sands camp. Drawing the lessons from history, we can certainly see case study after case study where industry lobbyists have triumphed over environmentalists when it comes to winning over politicians. Whether the EU will buck the trend and truly adopt its much-celebrated ‘precautionary principle’ on tar sands is doubtful but the fight is not over just yet, claim the environmentalists. Stay tuned.

Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review. Follow him on Twitter @poljourno and follow Policy Review @Policyrev

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