In a move hailed as “a tragedy for the climate,” the European Commission has abandoned its plan to label tar sands oil as highly polluting, opening the way for more imports of the dirty oil into Europe.
After years of delays, the European Commission finally published its plans to implement the Fuel Quality Directive this week — a crucial piece of climate legislation agreed on five years ago which aims to reduce emissions from transport fuels.
The legislation sets a target to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of transport fuels by 6% by 2020.
However, under strong pressure from the oil industry and the Canadian government, the Commission has removed a key obstacle to Canada exporting tar sands crude to Europe.
Nusa Urbancic, Transport & Environment said:
[Today’s decision] is not just a tragedy for the climate; excusing the oil industry from carbon reduction efforts is unfair, inefficient, and costly as well. After five years of delay, we will likely end up with a very flawed law that won’t deliver on its original objectives of discouraging high-carbon fuel investment. Despite that, we need to implement it. Starting post-2020 work with a basic tracking system in place is better than nothing.
While today’s measures do recognise the high emissions of some fuels, especially tar sands, the earlier proposal would label the oil source as more highly-polluting than crude oil — a proposal which would have set out measures to discourage its import.
The draft instead requires refiners to report an average emissions value of the feedstock used in the products they produce, with no requirement to single out tar sands content.
Environmental campaigners and Green politicians criticized what they saw as a step backwards. They said that the Commission had allowed deals like TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) to be used to undermine the EU’s environmental legislation.
Greenpeace EU energy and transport policy director Franziska Achterberg said:
The Barroso Commission has chosen to put trade deals like TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) before the environment. This should be a lesson to (Commission President-elect Jean-Claude) Juncker and his team. Public opposition will only intensify if he allows trade deals to be used to undermine the EU’s environmental legislation.
They warn that dropping the legislation would spell “bad news” for Europe’s climate targets and allow a “flood of tar sands to wreck its carbon footprint” – particularly if new pipelines are approved.
Research from the Natural Resources Defense Council in January warned imports of Canadian tar sands into Europe could “grow from a trickle to a flood” and could skyrocket to 700,000 barrels a day by 2020 without a strong in place. This would result in an emissions increase in transport equivalent of adding around six million cars on European roads.
Tar sands – also known as oil sands – are deposits of bitumen crude oil mixed with sand that recent advances in technology have made possible to extract and refine into viable gasoline. Currently, the most prolific source of tar sands is situated within the boreal forests and peatlands of Alberta, Canada – occupying an area larger than the Netherlands – and the industry is expanding rapidly.
Production of oil in Alberta alone is expected to triple from 1.5 to 4.5 million barrels a day by 2035, potentially adding 706 million tonnes of CO2 to global emissions annually.
The oil is considered to be responsible for a higher proportion of carbon emissions than other source of oil, with one study finding it be 23% more greenhouse gases intensive than conventional crude oil.
Currently, very little tar sands oil flows through European petrol pumps, and the Fuel Quality Directive aimed to ensure that this remains the case.
Emissions savings from this piece of legislation could top 19 million tonnes of CO2 annually – the equivalent of taking 7 million cars off of Europe’s roads – and could set an important precedent for other regions and markets around the world.
But with the FQD watered down, the tar sands route from Canada to Europe could quickly open up. Last month saw the first shipment of the dirty fuel to Europe arrive by boat to Spanish docks, while another shipment thought to contain the dirty fuels destined for Italy this week.
Colin Roche, extractives campaigner with Friends of the Earth Europe said:
The Commission has recognised the highly polluting nature of tar sands but is going to let this climate killer be used by European oil companies with no penalty at all. The Commission has clearly seen the problem but – under heavy pressure from the oil industry and the Canadian and US government – chosen not to act on it.
Clearly the Commission has sold out Europe’s climate policy by putting the trade talks ahead of the protection of the planet. With just over a year to go before crucial climate talks in Paris the EU should be acting decisively on climate change, not watering down its own policies in the face of the fossil fuel industry lobby.
Today’s announcement also comes after the European Commission used its proposals on EU 2030 climate and energy policies to “quietly scrap the FQD” from 2020, despite warnings that transport is set to be the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the Union by 2030.
A coalition of NGOs and businesses, including the likes of WWF and British Airways among others, have also been working to pressure the European Union, Council, and Commission to aim beyond beyond 2020 when achieving greenhouse gas emission targets and implement a sustainable policy for transport fuels by 2030.
EU member states will now debate today’s proposal under a fast-track procedure meant to take less than two months. It will also require a sign-off from the European Parliament.
Meanwhile, a summit of EU leaders this month is expected to outline a new set of 2030 climate and energy goals.
NGOs are urging national governments to address the blind spot of tar sands in EU climate policy, reject today’s proposal by the EU Commission, and ensure that measures to decarbonise transport are included in its ‘2030 package’ of plans that tackle climate change.