Europe to Make It Easier to Import Dirty Tar Sands Oil From Canada

The EU waters down a proposal to slap a warning label on the most polluting petroleum.

(Photo: Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images)

Oct 13, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Hannah Hoag reports on the environment, global health, science, and science policy for Nature, Discover, Wired, and others.

The European Commission has released a proposal that would require energy suppliers to reduce the carbon intensity of their fuels by 6 percent by 2020 as well as disclose those products’ greenhouse gas emissions.

That falls short of a previous plan that would have labeled fuels from tar sands processed in Canada and elsewhere as “dirty.”

“It is no secret that our initial proposal could not go through due to resistance faced in some member states,” Connie Hedegaard, EU climate action commissioner, said in a statement.

The new proposal still gives EU members an incentive to choose less polluting fuels, Hedegaard said. To meet the standard, any increase in the volume of fuels produced from oil sand or oil shale must be offset with less carbon-intense sources of energy, such as biofuel or electricity.

Under the earlier 2009 proposal, oil extracted from oil sands would have been categorized as emitting 22 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average for crude oil. Refiners would have to disclose the presence of tar sands oil. Removing oil from tar sands or shale is an energy-intensive process that releases more greenhouse gases than does conventional drilling.

The oil industry had pressed the European Commission to reconsider. A report commissioned by the Canadian government argued that the amount of carbon released varies from one operation to the next and that the production of some conventional crude oils has greenhouse gas intensities that are “similar to or even higher than those of oil sands crude.”

Environmental groups warned that the new proposal would make it difficult for European countries to reduce transportation-related carbon emissions.

“This measure will do nothing to stop climate-wrecking fuels like tar sands from entering the EU market,” said Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU energy and transport policy director.

The new proposal is now up for debate among the EU member states and must be voted on in the European Parliament before it becomes law.

The proposal’s release coincided with the first shipment of Western Canadian heavy crude to Europe. In late September, the oil tanker Minerva Gloria arrived at the port of Sorel-Tracey in Quebec. It reportedly set sail on Oct. 7 for an undisclosed location in Europe loaded with an estimated 700,000 barrels of oil.

On the same day, an audit by Canada’s environment commissioner, Julie Gelfand, revealed that Canada will almost certainly not meet its international greenhouse gas emissions target by 2020.

Under the Copenhagen Accord, Canada agreed to curb its greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Between 2005 and 2012, its greenhouse gas emissions decreased 5 percent, from 736 metric tons to 699 metric tons. The target for 2020 is 607 metric tons.

“We found that federal measures currently in place will have little effect on emissions by 2020,” Gelfand said at a press conference.

The federal government has yet to impose regulations to reduce the carbon spew from the oil and gas industry, the fastest-growing source of emissions, according to the audit. The report also found that the government could improve the monitoring of the impact of oil sands development on air, water, and biodiversity.

“The government does not have many answers to many questions that impact the future of sustainable development in Canada,” said Gelfand.