Creating a future we want: How Europe can stop tar sands expansion

UK activists tell John Kerry ‘No tar sands, no Keystone XL!’
Photo: David Hoffman

By Emily Coats, UK Tar Sands Network

The tar sands megaproject is a striking example of what happens when money, greed and die-hard adherence to the status quo dominate our idea of ‘progress’: It results in the destruction of entire ecosystems and the ‘slow industrial genocide’ of First Nations. The industry likes to boast of its humble beginnings, how against all odds it broke through technological constraints to access this valuable resource. But what it has created is a monstrosity, which is obliterating a centuries-old way of life for indigenous peoples, spewing toxins into the local environment, and sending us hurtling towards catastrophic climate change. Propped up by inordinate tax cuts from the Canadian and Alberta governments, powered by the wealth of one of the world’s most ruthless industries, and supported by much of Alberta’s population, the tar sands establishment is, on the face of it, a hard nut to crack.

But despite its recent growth spurt, and boundless optimism, the future of the tar sands industry is starting to look uncertain. Its biggest customer, the US, is now increasing its own oil production and tightening its energy efficiency measures, resulting in a declining demand for tar sands oil. With tar sands extraction rates planned to triple by 2035, the survival of the industry depends on the oil getting ‘to market’. Proposed pipelines heading South, West and East out of Alberta have been hit with phenomenal waves of opposition, contributing to the falling price of tar sands oil compared to conventional crude. Just this week, Joe Oliver, Canada’s Natural Resource Minister, admitted that without new pipelines being built it would ‘put a dent’ in future tar sands development. But the infrastructure is only half of the equation – an equally pressing question is, if all this tar sands oil ever makes it to the coast, will there be anyone waiting to lap it up?

Europe has been working to make sure that there isn’t. Since 2009 the EU has been negotiating the hugely important Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) legislation. The FQD isn’t just about tar sands, it’s aiming to reduce the EU’s carbon emissions by grading all types of transport fuel on a ‘well-to-wheels’ or ‘lifecycle’ basis, with the goal of a 6% reduction of transport emissions by 2020. Europe doesn’t currently receive significant amounts of tar sands oil, so it’s surprising that so much controversy has been generated over the wording of one article, 7A, which states tar sands-derived fuel is to be considered 23% more polluting than conventional oil. But if this goes ahead it would strongly discourage imports of tar sands oil to the EU, effectively shutting off one of the world’s largest customers.

The significance of this clause is evidenced by the great efforts taken by the Canadian government and oil industry to make sure it is watered down, warped, or taken out altogether. Hundreds of lobbying meetings have been held over the last three years with officials from the UK and other EU countries, mostly behind closed doors. Lobbyists have access to seemingly bottomless pits of money, time and political influence, and have succeeded in provoking a stalemate and sending the Commission back to draw up a new proposal, delaying things for a good year or more, while opponents feel shunted and ignored.

But it is a winnable battle. We don’t need to convince the EU to do something wildly unrealistic – the EU wants the FQD to include a specific value for tar sands. The Commission and Parliament have already supported it, but the member states, who are most vulnerable to Canadian and industry lobbying, have delayed and drawn out the process over several years. They are next set to vote on the legislation in October 2013. The UK last year shifted from opposing to abstaining on the FQD, and getting them to support it should be one of our top priorities this year.

The UK has a host of other energy and environment problems to tackle, and tar sands often may not seem the most pressing, direct, or winnable issue. But in this case the UK’s role is vital, and people power is crucial. We should take inspiration from the remarkable opposition to the pipelines in the US and Canada, where, were it not for public outcry, the pipelines would be built already and the oil flowing. For European activists already involved in the tar sands movement, the FQD forms a rare opportunity to directly impact the industry’s future development, and creates a new link in the chain of resistance which spans from communities resisting extraction in Alberta, to those opposing pipelines all over the US and Canada.

We can’t afford further delay. Not only is the legislation at risk of being thrown out if it is pushed back much further, but now is also a make-or-break moment for the tar sands industry. By allowing new markets to open their doors to tar sands we’re substantiating the need for new pipelines, and giving the industry a viable future, not only in Canada but around the world where tar sands exist ready to be exploited, in places such as Madagascar, Trinidad and Tobago, and Congo Brazzaville. On the other hand, by choking the industry of a major new customer, we could set a bold precedent that other countries would follow, making the price of tar sands oil plummet and eventually challenging the logic of this reckless projected expansion.

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