Let's set the record straight: Tar sands = 'dirty oil'

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Photo: flickr/Peter Blanchard

Environmentalists on both side of the Atlantic are shocked at the news that the European Union is proposing to scrap a mandatory requirement to label tar sands crude as highly polluting.

On Oct. 7, EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard released the revised draft plan of the EU's Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) and stated, "It's no secret that our initial proposal could not go through due to resistance faced in some member states."

It's a triumph of five years of lobbying by both the tar sands industry and the Harper government, which has poured millions of taxpayer dollars into getting the EU to back off from labelling tar sands oil as "dirty oil" that is 22 per cent more greenhouse-gas intensive than conventional oil and contributes heavily to climate change. Such a label would thereby curtail the crude from being imported into Europe.

Of course, the tar sands industry and the business press are gloating.

Greg Stringham, vice-president of the key industry lobby, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), told the Financial Post, "Many thought in Europe that [Canadian] industry and governments were opposed to carbon policy. When they found we already have one that covers 100 per cent of the oil sands in Alberta, they were surprised."

But that EU news came on the very same day that Canada's Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development released a scathing report on the federal government's failure to reduce carbon emissions and conduct environmental monitoring in the tar sands.

While the EU leaders apparently believe that Canada has some kind of national "carbon policy," Commissioner Julie Gelfand said at her Oct. 7 press conference that Canada has "no overall plan, national plan" for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and "the evidence is pretty strong that we will not meet the target" for carbon reduction.

As part of the Copenhagen Accord, Canada pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 17 per cent, from 2005 levels, by 2020. In fact, emissions are rising exponentially as tar sands production expands. In fact, in October 2013, Environment Canada stated that carbon emissions in Canada are on track to rise by 20 per cent over the next six years.

So on the same day (Oct. 7) we found out that the EU may be revising its FQD because they think we have a national "carbon policy," we also found out that we actually don't have one and will likely miss our 2020 promised targets for emissions reduction.

Talk about cognitive dissonance.

Saying that missing that target is her "biggest concern," Gelfand added, "I think that when you make a commitment, you need to keep it, and it's very difficult for us, for Canada, to expect other countries to meet their commitments when Canada can't meet its own."

Gelfand also revealed that the Harper government has been sitting on a draft of regulations for the oil and gas sector for at least year. Harper has been promising emissions regulations for the tar sands since 2006.

Gelfand's report says that "detailed regulatory proposals have been available internally for over a year," but the Harper government has only consulted privately through a "small working group of one province and selected industry representatives."

According to The Globe and Mail (Oct. 7):

Ms. Gelfand said she believes that province was Alberta and the internal consultation 'does not meet the criterion' of a world-class system. ‘What we found was that the consultation has occurred narrowly and privately. We made a recommendation to the government that they need to develop an overall plan for developing [oil and gas emissions] regulations. Canadians want to know when the regulations are going to come in, what level of regulation it's going to be, what level of greenhouse gas reduction we're going to achieve...'

No doubt, the EU leaders would want to know this too -- had they not been so effectively fooled by petrostate PR tactics.

Financial Post energy columnist Claudia Cattaneo explained (Oct. 7) that "Canada rightly challenged environmental groups' fact-light smear campaign [of the tar sands]. The governments of Alberta, Canada, CAPP and European oil sands producers [like BP, Shell, Statoil and Total] and suppliers all played a role in explaining [to EU leaders] how Canada develops and regulates its oil sands resources. Alberta alone dispatched representatives to 24 out of 28 EU member states." 

Meanwhile back in the Canadian reality, Gelfand revealed that not only has the Harper government not been adequately monitoring the environmental impacts of the tar sands, but it has no firm plan to conduct any monitoring after 2015.

That, of course, fits with the fact that the Harper government has since 2012 gutted most federal environmental legislation, and has conducted an extensive "war on science" by muzzling and firing thousands of government environmental scientists, leaving few to do any actual monitoring or scientific oversight. 

In November 2013, the Washington-based Center for Global Development revealed that of 27 wealthy nations, Canada now ranks last in terms of environmental protection. 

The revised EU proposal on the FQD still has to be debated by member states and will be done so through "a fast-track procedure meant to take less than two months." It also needs to be signed off by the European Parliament.

It's no surprise that the proposal is being fast-tracked. Tar sands oil is already being exported to Europe, with two supertankers arriving in Italy during the past few days, carrying shipments from Suncor sent from Montreal. Earlier, Spain's Repsol SA shipped a tanker of tar sands dilbit (diluted bitumen) from the U.S. Gulf Coast to its refinery in Bilbao. 

Now the EU leaders are indulging in their own form of cognitive dissonance. At a summit this month they are outlining their new climate goals, including a proposed 40 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions. Just how that can be achieved while importing "climate-wrecking fuels like tar sands" (as Greenpeace puts it) is anyone's guess, but it likely involves a great deal of pretence.

Those mental gymnastics will likely be facilitated by the Oct. 8 confirmation of an "oil mogul" -- Spanish conservative Miguel Arias Canete, former director of two oil companies -- as the EU's new climate and energy commissioner.


Joyce Nelson is an award-winning freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books.

Photo: flickr/Peter Blanchard

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