MEPs join NGOs in expressing alarm about oil from ‘tar sands’

May 20, 2010

The environment impact of oil produced from ‘tar sands’ is becoming an increasingly high-profile issue, after three developments in the last month that could be important in the fight for cleaner fuels. MEPs and a group of NGOs have warned that fuel quality legislation agreed in 2008 could be undermined because the true impact of tar sands on CO2 emissions is not reflected in the small print of the law now being discussed, and another NGO says oil from some of the most carbon-intensive sources is probably already in use on this side of the Atlantic.

Production of oil from tar sands emits around three times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil, so alarm bells rang in the environmental movement when leaked documents in March revealed that oil from tar sands was going to be treated the same as conventional oil under the ‘implementing measures’ of the EU’s fuel quality directive.

Article 7a of the directive says lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of transport fuels must be reduced by 6% by 2020, a move environmental NGOs welcomed when it was announced two years ago. But reports say the Commission has developed a methodology for calculating emissions from fuel production that proposes just a single emissions value for all diesel derived from oil, and one for petrol, regardless of how it is produced.

Twelve NGOs wrote to the climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard, warning that this could undermine the entire effectiveness of the directive, and last month a group of 17 MEPs also wrote to Hedegaard expressing ‘deep concerns’ about the same thing and urging improvements to the methodology. Earlier this month, a European Parliament resolution expressed its ‘concern about the impact of the extraction of oil sand on the global environment due to the high level of CO2 emissions during its production process and the threat it poses for local biodiversity’.

California already has a low-carbon fuel standard similar to the proposed Article 7a that treats high carbon intensity oil differently.

In a related development, a group of NGOs has published an advert warning about the dangers of allowing oil from tar sands to become widely used in the EU. Its slogan reads ‘Keep tar sands out of Europe’, and it describes tar sands oil as ‘the most climate hostile energy source in commercial production today’.

T&E says it is not seeking to ban oil from tar sands (such a ban would probably be illegal), but wants a specific default value in the fuel quality directive for calculating the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of transport fuels derived from tar sands and oil shale. That way, petrol and diesel from tar sands would be still allowed, but commercially unattractive or even unviable as the increases in emissions associated with dirty oil sources would have to be offset elsewhere, for example by increasing use of biofuels.

Until a couple of years ago, only those involved in the drilling industry used the term ‘tar sands’ with any regularity, and the environmental impact of tar sands oil meant it was relatively low down the oil companies’ priority list. But the prospect of ‘peak oil’ and rising fuel prices made producing petrol and diesel from tar sands commercially attractive.

The leading producer of oil from tar sands is Canada, which lobbied hard for the fuel quality directive’s single greenhouse gas value as a way of protecting its growing oil-from-tar-sands industry.

Earlier this month, Greenpeace said it believes considerable quantities of crude oil from tar sands are now being exported to Europe, having been extracted in Canada and refined in the southern states of the USA. Greenpeace says it can’t prove that any tar sands oil has ended up in Europe but says the weight of evidence firmly points to this.

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