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EU tar sands fight not over, experts at stalemate

posted 23 Feb 2012, 10:01 by Mpelembe   [ updated 23 Feb 2012, 11:35 ]

EU experts fail to agree on a proposal aimed at labelling Canadian tar sands ''dirty'', sending the debate to a ministerial level. The EU executive hails the vote as a victory against lobbyists.

IN AIR OVER CANADA (FILE) (GREENPEACE CANADA - A Committee of technical experts representing the 27 European Union member states failed on Thursday (February 23) to agree on a proposal to label tar sands as more polluting than other sources.

Years of fierce lobbying against a proposal from the EU Commission ended in a stalemate, meaning the proposal will have to be discussed at a ministerial level.

The proposal from the EU's executive to include tar sands in a ranking designed to enable fuel suppliers to identify the most carbon-intensive options has stirred up intense lobbying by Canada.

The European Union's executive and environmentalists say the "dirty" label is necessary to help fuel buyers choose the least carbon-intensive energy forms and help to curb global warming.

Canada, home to massive crude reserves most of which are in the form of very heavy crude known as tar sands or oil sands, has challenged the EU law, saying it is discriminatory and could damage trade ties.

Thursday's vote at a closed-door meeting of technical experts failed to reach a qualified majority under the EU's voting system, which weights voting to reflect the populations of the EU's member states.

There were 54 votes in favour of the proposal, 128 votes against and 128 abstentions, which means there were not enough yes or no votes to result in a majority.

Denmark, holder of the current EU presidency and a keen advocate of environmental reform, led the nations supporting the proposal.

"Well, the FQT is about reducing GHG emissions by 6 percent by 2020 and if people want to use Canadian tar sand, it is a possibility but it will be more difficult to achieve the goal of reducing GHGs by 6 percent," the head of section in the Danish energy agency Peter Willumsen said using experts' jargon.

FQT means Fuel Quality Testing. GHG means Greenhouse Gas.

Slovakia voted in favour of the proposal too, the representative of Slovakia's environment minister Matiaz Ferjancic said.

Asked about the consequences of using Canadian tar sand, Ferjancic joked: "Your children will tell you, your children will answer this question... The future is the problem."

Britain and the Netherlands, both of which have stakes in Royal Dutch Shell, one of the firms active in tar sands, abstained, an EU source said on condition of anonymity.

No-voters included Estonia, home to shale oil, which would also be labelled as carbon intensive, and Poland, which could be concerned that its reserves of shale gas, another unconventional energy source, might at a later date come under scrutiny

Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said it was a victory against the tar sands lobbyists that it had not been a "no vote".

"With all the heavy lobbyism against the Commission's proposal, I must say that I feared that member states' technical experts would have rejected the Commission's proposal in today's experts committee so of course I am glad that this was not the case. But what are then now... the next steps forward. Well, now the Commission's proposal will go to ministers and I hope governments will realise that unconventional fuels of course need to account for their considerably higher emissions through separate values," Hedegaard said.

The directive's overall goal is to reduce the carbon intensity of transport fuels by 6 percent by 2020 as part of wider goals to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

As a means to that end, it assigns greenhouse gas values to a series of fuels, including those derived from tar sands.

Tar sands are assigned a default greenhouse gas value of 107 grams of carbon per megajoule, informing buyers it has a greater climate impact than conventional crude with 87.5 grams.

Environmentalist Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) Friends of the Earth has campaigned against what they describe as ''dirty'' fuel.

Friends of the Earth campaigner Darek Urbaniak explained why.

"It has been proven scientifically that tar sands and other forms of unconventional fossil fuels have much higher negative impact on the climate because their emissions are much higher. They have enormous negative impacts on the environment as you need a vast amount of space. You need to dig, you need to clear the burial forests and by doing that you also are causing a huge negative impact on the communities of the people that live nearby," Urbaniak said.

Urbaniak said European legislation is important because it would create a precedent.

"If we don't stop it, we're basically giving the green light to the oil industry to invest in this kind of operation beyond Canada because tar sands are not only Canada, but also in Madagascar, Congo and other places in the world," Urbaniak also said.

Canada does not directly sell its crude to Europe, although the EU receives some fuel imports that are refined from Canadian oil in the United States.

Its concern is more about the damage to the image of tar sands and the impact on future sales that could result from the EU's planned law.