EU must avoid getting ‘locked in’ to high carbon oil

November 21, 2011

Opinionby Nusa Urbancic – T&E Policy Officer One of the least-noted parts of the EU’s ‘climate and energy package’, agreed three years ago, was the Fuel Quality Directive. It should have been better noted because it went straight to the root of one of transport’s biggest problems, namely oil’s increasingly dirty future. It did so by setting a target for reducing lifecycle carbon emissions of petrol and diesel. As such it is a simple, technology-neutral way of encouraging producers of fuel to work towards cleaner products and better extraction methods.

For more than two years the law remained just that – a target, without anything actually implementing it. The chief reason was that the oil industry and Canada – with its vast reserves of tar sands – put much pressure on the Commission not to do anything that could meaningfully influence the way the oil industry operates and invests. And for a while indeed the Commission seemed to oblige by giving high-carbon fuel produced from tar sands and shale oil the same greenhouse gas emissions value as conventional petrol and diesel. To do so would have undermined the whole point of the Fuel Quality Directive’s carbon targets.
But fortunately, last month we were able to report that the Commission had proposed to give fuels made from tar sands and oil shale higher values (respectively 107g and 131g of carbon per megajoule) than conventional petrol (87.5g). The values still need to be approved by member states. Given that Canada and the oil industry are lobbying strongly against them, it’s far from clear whether they will accept this differentiation or not.
This month’s annual World Energy Outlook by the International Energy Agency (IEA) should show all 27 EU members how foolish they would be to make any concession to Canada’s lobbying. The broad message from the IEA is that every decision made now that furthers high-carbon infrastructure makes it ever harder to seriously combat global warming. This is because of ‘lock in’: high-carbon decisions made now will have high-carbon effects for decades to come. The IEA says that if an international climate strategy isn’t agreed within six years, the world’s goal of keeping temperature rises to a maximum of two degrees Celsius this century will be almost impossible to achieve.

Avoiding this lock in is exactly what the EU is trying to do with the Fuel Quality Directive – it has set a structure that encourages the cleanest fuels and discourages the dirtiest ones.

Meanwhile, in the US, Barack Obama appears to have recognised that dirty fuels represent serious environmental and political risk with his decision to postpone the Keystone XL pipeline project until after next November’s US presidential elections. As the pipeline is designed to transfer oil from the Alberta tar sands to Texan refineries, continuing American addiction to dirty oil for another four decades, he has rightly taken the view that it might be money badly spent.
It is now up to the member states, and later MEPs, to demonstrate similar determination to the Commission and Obama. Setting high values for tar sands, shale oil and coal-to-liquid, and offering lower values for producers who can show reduced emissions, is not discriminatory, and it does not prevent such fuels from being produced, sold or used. It simply offers incentives based on science for producers to reduce the emissions from their fuels. That is the right thing to do, however angry it will make the Canadian and Alberta governments.

Related Articles

View All