Getting the facts straight on tar sands

Do the oil industry and Canada's tar sands numbers add up?  T&E's programme manager for clean fuels Nusa Urbancic takes a closer look at a new Canadian-sponsored study, and describes how a T&E report on administrative costs appears to have forced the oil lobby to change its tune.   

Canada’s long running campaign against the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive has been well documented. This Reuters article gives a good overview of how the country has attempted to undermine the new rules which are designed to reduce the carbon footprint of transport fuels by encouraging cleaner sources and making the dirtiest ones much less attractive. 

Canada’s latest salvo was a study commissioned by the Albertan government from Jacobs Engineering Group which, according to the Alberta spin machine, found that tar sands derived fuels are “within 12 per cent of the carbon intensity of gasoline and diesel from crude oils refined in Europe”.  That figure looks much better than the EU’s ‘default value’ for tar sands, which is 23% higher than conventional oil, a number that comes from a Stanford University study carried out for the European Commission.  But look closely at the Canadian study (presumably Alberta thinks most policymakers won’t bother to get past their summary) and a different picture emerges. 

The Jacobs report actually says “For Alberta heavy crude oil, the carbon intensity of diesel fuel is within 12 per cent of the upper range of carbon intensity for diesel from representative crude oils refined in Europe.” Note: our emphasis.  So , in other words, tar sands oil is 12% worse than the dirtiest conventional oil refined in Europe.  That’s quite a difference.  The Pembina Institute has an excellent blog which unpicks the findings of the Jacobs study.      

But wait, there are more dodgy figures going around in this debate.  Presentations given by oil industry lobbyists to EU policymakers suggested the cost of complying with the requirements of the Fuel Quality Directive would add a dollar to the cost of a barrel of oil.

For this reason, T&E decided to commission an independent report examining these claims. The study concluded that the admin cost would be around one Euro cent a barrel or half a Eurocent for a typical 50-litre fill-up – 100 times less than what the oil producers and suppliers claimed.  Rather surprisingly this also convinced the oil industry: its EU lobbying organisation, called Europia), told a recent event we organised at the European Parliament, that the administrative cost would indeed be insignificant.

The implementation of the Fuel Quality Directive is now on hold while the European Commission waits for the results of a further impact assessment.  But MEPs last week, as part of a wider report on resource efficiency, gave strong support for the law to go ahead and for sticking with the higher values for high carbon sources such as tar sands.  Its reassuring that despite a lobbying campaign that UK Liberal Democrat MEP Chris Davies has called “stunning in its intensity”, there are signs that the EU is not about to give in to oil industry and Canadian special interests.  

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