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Hypocrisy and the Alberta Tar Sands


This Thursday, officials in the European Union will vote on a fuel quality directive (FQD) that would give higher carbon emissions values on fuels depending on their source.  According to the law, fuel from conventional oil would have a greenhouse gas rating of 87.5 grams per megajoule.  Fuels from oil shale: 131.3.  Fuels from coal: 172.  But, most importantly for Canada, fuels derived from tar sands would be rated at 107 g per megajoule.  That’s 22% higher than the rating for conventional oil.

According to Connie Hedegaard, European commissioner for climate action (Canada needs one of those!), the new fuel directive is “clearly science-based”.  She goes on to say that “With this measure, we are sending a clear signal to fossil fuel suppliers. As fossil fuels will be a reality in the foreseeable future, it’s important to give them the right value.”

Seems fair.  And reasonable.  Especially when you consider the process required to make Tar Sands oil.  For the oil that is near the surface, making one barrel of oil requires that you need to dig up (with diesel-powered trucks) two tons of bitumen.  And in order to separate the the oil for the dirt, the bitumen needs to be heated at very high temperatures (by burning natural gas).  Even the “in-situ” process, which heats up the oil where it is found, requires the burning of natural gas.  And so, even without reading the scientific literature, it makes sense that tar sands fuels would have a higher rating than conventional fuel which is simply pumped out of the ground.

One of the ways we extract bitmen.  Photo:

One of the ways we extract bitmen. Photo:

In comes the hypocrisy.  On January 9th, 2012, Canada’s Natural Resources minister wrote an open letter to Canadians, which I wrote about previously.  In his letter the minister made the following statement about “environmental and other radical groups:

Finally, if all other avenues have failed, they will take a quintessential American approach: sue everyone and anyone to delay the project even further. They do this because they know it can work.

And that is exactly what the Canadian government plans to do if the EU’s fuel law is passed.  After spending months lobbying EU governments in the hopes of convincing them to vote against this law, our government (in the form of David Plunkett, ambassador to the EU) has announced that if the law is passed, it will take the EU to court.  In the case, court is the World Trade Organization (WTO).  Canada’s argument is that the law would discriminate against Alberta Tar Sands oil.  And, according to the Globe and Mail, the WTO “requires fully equivalent treatment to imports of ‘like’ goods wherever they come from.”

I do not know much about legal law.  But the argument here is not about “where” a product comes from.  It is about the carbon emissions associated with the product.  And if countries are unable to properly label and tax products according to their carbon footprint, we have a serious problem.

Just like the airline emissions fees, this is another example of the EU attempting to pass the type of regulation that we need in order to reduce carbon emissions.  Governments (and the industries that influence them) can complain all they want, but it needs to be done.  According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global carbon emissions need to peak by 2015 and drop by at least 50% by 2050 if we want to avert catastrophic climate change.  Putting fees on emissions is the best way to reduce emissions and encourage the development of low-carbon alternatives.

In my humble opinion, by planning to sue the implementation of the EU fuel quality directive, our Canadian government is demonstrating how it has no intentions to fight climate change.


Sources: Times Colonist and The Globe and Mail.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Food Forays permalink
    2012/02/22 8:51 am

    Fantastic job on this.I live in Northern Ontario, and there are changes going on to reduce the carbon footprint of the mining industries that are the main economy source here (Sudbury). The community at large is quite involved in reducing our carbon footprint as individuals also.
    I think I’ve shamefully had my head in the tar sands. Although I know the type of equipment it takes to process the sands (I worked for a company that supplied some of it), I honestly didn’t sit and think about the environmental impact beyond the obvious. Harper is largely to blame to how things are being done. In my opinion, he’s pushing to try to get this country in the position the US was in. At what cost? What will be left of our country?
    I’m SO glad I found this blog (referred by G+ members). I really need to pay more attention to what’s going on in the country I live in. I’ve been touting the improvements in my area, but they pale in comparison to this.

    • 2012/02/22 9:40 pm

      Hello Food Forays – I’m not sure what else to call you : )

      Thank you very much for the kind words. It is very motivating to “hear” that people enjoy what I write.

      As for your “head in the tar sands”, it’s like anything else in the world. Admiting it is the first step!

      I think a lot of Canadians are in that situation where they look at the tar sands as an incredible industrial project and a great source of revenue for our country. Unfortunately, we (as in Canadians) need to have a very serious discussion where we weigh the potential financial gains against the long term costs of investing in the tar sands. But that isn’t happening. Instead, we hear rhetoric about “radicals” and people who are “against the economic success of Canada”. It is very immature. Like hearing my students argue!

      • Food Forays permalink
        2012/02/23 8:49 am

        My name is Tami, sorry about that! LOL I forget that when I respond to blogs my wordpress ID gets used!

        I think the biggest problem is lack of information. At my side of our country, we only hear about the jobs available etc, and the biggest complaint is that if we produce crude oil, how come our gas prices are so insane at the pumps…
        I’ll certainly pay more attention, and like I sad, if I take five minutes to think about it, of COURSE I know it’s terrible for our environment. The worst thing is that since it’s promoted as such a great boon for Canada, we (I) tend not to “dig further” (couldn’t resist the pun!) to find out the real information of the impact. I’ll certainly be talking more about it!!

      • 2012/02/23 9:58 pm

        Hello Tami. Nice to meet you. I’m Jocelyn (Joce for short – it rhymes with boss).

        I agree that lack of information is a big problem. Along with a large dose of mistrust for science.

        And a lack of knowledge about how markets work. Even if we refined the oil here, there is no guarantee that the refined products would be sold here. We live in a global economy and the cost of oil is determined by its “supply and demand”. Since we have passed “peak oil”, the supply (or production) of oil can only decrease with time. That increases the value of oil because it becomes more “rare” as time goes on. And, on the demand side, the rate of consumption of oil is also increasing, especially in developing countries like China. By increasing the demand, we, again, increase the value. The only direction that the value of oil (and the cost of fuel) can go is up. No expansion of the tar sands or off shore drilling project will change that. The recession brought the costs down, but that is because the world uses less oil during a recession. As we’ve seen in the past year, as the economy improves, consumption increases and the costs go up again. (By the way, I apologize if this is all stuff you already know. I’m just getting this “off my chest” and now I feel better!)

        I do not pretend to be an expert (because I certainly am not), but I know enough to realize that there is no magic wand to bring down fuel prices.

        Finally, If you want to learn a little more about the tar sands, there are a few places you can go. (Like I tell my students, the more sources you have the better!) I would start at the David Suzuki Foundation. Although you could argue that they are biased, I find that what they write is honest and they pride themselves on being “science-based”. Here is a link if your are interested:

      • Food Forays permalink
        2012/02/24 8:16 am

        Feel free to vent any time Joce! I am a student in Business (again!), so I do understand the economics behind it all, but I’m also incredibly frustrated. You may not be an “expert” in the eyes of some, but you’re a venerable fountain of knowledge in my eyes!
        I have what I like to call a scientific mind/outlook. I DO believe in science, and the David Suzuki Foundation is fantastic to me. Thank you for providing that information! Due to life’s happenings, I haven’t spent enough time on things like this, and I think it’s high time that I did.

  2. 2012/02/23 8:24 am

    making one barrel of oil requires that you need to dig up (with diesel-powered trucks) two tons of bitumen.

    Thank you for that. Highly tweetabubble.

  3. 2012/02/24 4:15 am

    Good work Joce. All I hear in the U.S. is don’t worry Canada has the tar sands, Wyoming has the oil shale. plenty to go around for everybody. What I don’t hear is the cost of extraction and cost to the environment. Lord help us.

    • 2012/02/26 11:29 am

      You (and, by extension, we) also don’t hear about how we may “have” the Tar Sands and the oil shale, but we don’t have the money. See, if the demand for oil goes up to the point where it becomes too dangerous/costly/difficult to obtain it from our traditional sources, that will mean that ALL oil will have become very precious.

      Does anyone in North America really believe that the oil companies have a sense of loyalty? When we can no longer obtain our oil from all our other suppliers, do we really think they’re going to consider us their top priority, just because they’re using our natural resources? No. They’re going to sell that oil to the highest bidder, no matter what, no matter who, no matter when.

      I highly doubt that we will be the highest bidders.

      What’s our collective debt at the moment?

      • 2012/02/26 1:55 pm

        That just put a scenario into mind I’ve never considered. Very insightful dw! So do “democratic” countries then nationalize the resources as s. america has done? Very interesting. Thanks

      • 2012/02/26 8:59 pm

        Howdy! Well, I had never really thought about nationalizing resources (though I probably should have, as I am what the Right like to call a Dirty Socialist). My gut reaction to the problem is to get off the damn juice altogether. If we were less dependent on their brand of energy, we wouldn’t be so willing to let them run roughshod over us.

        An addict can’t really be too upset when his pusher ups the price of crack, can he?

        I, for one, have no faith that our governments are going to step in at that crucial moment when all of our other pushers have made oil unaffordable and force the local guys to sell it to us at a fair price. They’ve all been working together for years to put in place iron-clad laws protecting global free trade for exactly this reason (Mr. Harper went to China last week on just such a mission). They all want the right to sell their goods to their highest bidder and they’ve paid a lot of money to make that their unassailable right. The government will have a big fight on their hands if they try to take that away at the precise moment when oil is at its most precious (i.e. profitable).

        North American governments aren’t listening to us at the moment, so the only thing we can do is make noise and go to rehab.

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