Responding to Canada’s tar sands lobbying in Europe: Opportunities for collaborative international action

International Stop the Tar Sands Day

Last Friday, concerned citizens from the across the globe assembled to mark International Stop The Tar Sands Day, a global day of action against the ever-expanding industrial “gigaprojects” that sprawl across the northern Alberta landscape.

In Canada, demonstrators turned out in almost a dozen cities across the country for demonstrations, workshops, film screenings, and even an “oil zombie walk” to create awareness about the ecologically destructive and environmentally unsustainable nature of the Tar Sands. Similar events were held in cities across the US, the UK, Europe, and in Australia and New Zealand.

In the UK, tar sands activists have been particularly vocal about Britain’s support for an exemption on tar sands from a new Europe-wide fuel directive that would inhibit imports of such high-emissions fuel products. At the Canadian High Commission in London, environmentalists signed a huge petition demanding that British transport minister Norman Baker change his position on the issue. Currently, the UK and the Netherlands are the only remaining European countries to oppose the inclusion of tar sands in this directive. 

Lobbying for the Tar Sands – and against progressive energy policy

In 2008 the EU adopted a “Fuel Quality Directive” that seeks to evaluate and categorize  fuel products entering the European market according to their carbon footprint. This directive would establish a legally binding 6% reduction in emissions from European transportation fuels, effectively marginalizing fuels, like tar sands oil, that use emissions-intensive production processes.

In a scientific assessment commissioned by the EU, Tar Sands oil was deemed to have a pre-consumption carbon-footprint that is 23% larger than conventional crude oil. This figure roughly equals the average of similar assessments compiled by the Natural Resource Defense Council, though it is significantly higher than the 5-10% figure put forward in an industry-commissioned study.

It is not surprising that tar sands investors have begun to push back with their own pseudo-scientificair-brushing of these operations; but is it surprising that this industry-funded study was cited by Canada’s ambassador to the EU in a letter requesting that tar sands be omitted from consideration in this directive as a distinct source of fuel?

Sadly, no. Canada’s collaborative efforts with the companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, British Petroleum, Total, and StatoliHydro to promote the image, development and export of tar sands oil iswell established. Internal government documents revealed through recent access to information requests show that Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has an active and ongoing campaign to promote the tar sands in Europe.

The efforts of the Federal and Alberta government’s to keep the tar sands out of this directive, however, is not necessarily based on straightforward economics; currently, Europe imports virtually no oil from Canada, and the direct financial impact of an outright ban on tar sands be negligible. It is the symbolism of this directive, and the possibility that these policy measures might be emulated in other economies – particularly in the US -, that has the tar sands industry and the Canadian government up in arms.

The overlap between Canada’s efforts to promote tar sands exports, and the those of climate-conscious nations to reduce their consumption of this uniquely destructive energy source has revealed the Harper government’s brazenly myopic outlook on climate change: not only is Canada unwilling to pursue effective mitigation efforts at home, but it is actively undermining foreign efforts to reduce emissions.

It is also interesting to note, however, that Canada’s tar sands advocacy in Europe has also begun to spill over into the Harper Government’s economic broader economic interests, namely, the promotion of free trade.

Tar sands, the CETA and Canada’s international trade ambitions

Since 2006 Canada and the European Union (EU) have been negotiating a Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) that is expected to dramatically increase economic activity between Canada and Europe. As the largest trade agreement since NAFTA and the second-largest free-trade agreement in the world, CETA is arguably the most important component of the Harper Government’s global commercial engagement strategy.

Despite the relative importance of securing this agreement, however, Canadian negotiators have increasingly angered their European counterparts by making the exclusion of tar sands oil from the EU fuel directive an issue of contention at the bargaining table. Aggressive lobbying by the Federal and Alberta government has caused many Members of the European Parliament to bristle, and at least one MEP has described these efforts as “unacceptable.”

The EU, however, has begun to push back. The European Parliament’s trade committee recentlypassed a resolution affirming that “CETA negotiations should not affect the EU’s right to legislate in the fuel quality directive.”

At this point, however, Canada is unlikely to back down, and can be expected to cry ‘trade protectionism’ at any legislation that seeks to reduce the consumption of emissions-intensive fuel sources.  If the UK and the Netherlands change the stance and the exemption for tar sands oil is dropped, Canada has not ruled out issuing a formal complaint against the EU with the World Trade Organization.

Leveraging International opposition to tar sands  development

The demonstrations that took place across the world last week have shown that concern over the development of Canada’s extends from Berlin to Sydney, Minneapolis to Manchester, Ottawa to Oslo, and beyond.

The EU Fuel Quality Directive is a small but meaningful step towards phasing out high-emitting fuel sources like tar sands oil. Environmental lobbyists in the UK and the Netherlands, the only remaining European countries to oppose the inclusion of tar sands oil in the proposed directive, will play a crucial role in holding their government’s to account.

To effectively counter the lobbying efforts of the federal and Alberta government to promote the image of Canada’s tar sands industry abroad, international collaboration will be an increasingly important tool in identifying opportunities to exercise influence, and leveraging the resources necessary to organize a coherent and vocal response.

The eighth round of CETA negotiations is scheduled to take place in Brussels, Belgium from July 11th to 15th.

For more information about Canada’s tar sands lobbying efforts, check out this audio recording from CBC’s The Current, or this briefing from the Council of Canadians.

For Background info on the tar sands, check out The Pembina Institute’s

One Response to “Responding to Canada’s tar sands lobbying in Europe: Opportunities for collaborative international action”
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  1. […] the UK) to weaken fuel quality standards legislation that would see high tariffs levied upon tar sands oil imported from Canada because of its heavily polluting production.  The most salient case […]

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