Tar sands go political as key vote ends in deadlock
By Honor Mahony
EU member states have failed to name tar sands a high polluting energy source following intense lobbying by oil companies and Canada but green groups and the European Commission hope the politicisation of the discussion will work in their favour.
A expert committee vote on Thursday (23 February) did not find the required majority in favour of a European Commission proposal to designate oil from tar sands as particularly damaging to the environment, with Poland and Spain among those that voted against the idea and France, the Netherlands and the UK - home to international oil companies - abstaining.
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The stalemate means the issue is now likely to be dealt with by EU environment ministers at a meeting in June - taking what to date has been a behind-closed-doors debate into the open.
EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard acknowledged the extent of the lobbying against the commission's suggestion to label tar sands as causing 22 percent more greenhouse gases.
"With all the lobbyism against the Commission proposal, I feared that member states' experts would have rejected the proposal in today's experts committee. I am glad that this was not the case," she said in a statement.
"Now our 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."
Green groups are also hoping that a more public debate will make ministers less inclined to give into lobby pressure.
“Now that the tar sands issue is finally in the hands of publicly accountable ministers, we will see who’s pulling the strings in Europe. The evidence is clear: tar sands are the world’s dirtiest fuels," said Franziska Achterberg from environment NGO Greenpeace.
Canada, estimated to have the world's third biggest oil reserve, most of it is locked up in tar sands, has been exerting the greatest pressure on EU countries.
The Guardian newspaper recently revealed that Ottawa threatened a trade war with the EU if it went ahead with the energy classification under the so-called fuel quality directive.
Darek Urbaniak, from Friends of the earth Europe, told this website that Canada's language on the issue started getting progressively "harsher and undiplomatic" from late autumn in 2011.
He also noted that the Canadian government organised numerous meetings on the issue with officials from member states, at times one every three days.
Tar sands requires extra processing to make it liquid, a step that results in the extra greenhouse gases.
The dispute is being seen as a test of the EU's environmental resolve with the bloc having agreed to reduce CO2 emissions by 20 percent by 2020.
Reacting to Thursday's non-decision, Joe Oliver, Canadian natural resources minister, said: "We are pleased to see that many EU countries are opposed to this discriminatory measure. We are working to determine what the next steps will be.
The Government of Canada’s position on this remains unchanged."
The EU is currently also fighting on a separate green front. A gang of countries, including Russia and China, have said they will not accept new European rules obliging all airlines to take part in an emissions trading scheme.