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Tar Sands Victory Threatens to Flood Europe with World's Dirtiest Fuel

European Commission unveils proposal that critics charge undermine efforts designed to curb tar sands imports to Europe

Sarah Lazare

The European Commission on Tuesday unveiled proposed legislation to toss out a requirement to label tar sands oil as dirtier than other fossil fuels—a move that is likely to bolster Canada's bitumen industry as it jockeys to break into European markets.

Five years ago the Commission agreed to a piece of climate legislation called the 'Fuel Quality Directive,' which was to be implemented in 2010 with the aim of cutting transport fuel emissions by 6 percent by the year 2020. The Commission previously proposed under this directive to require that that tar sands be reported as a greater carbon emitter than conventional crude, which could have led to a penalty on bitumen, most of which comes from Canada.

However, following years of heavy industry pressure and government stalling, the plan still has not gone into effect.

According to a report released this summer by Friends of the Earth Europe, Canada and the United States have aggressively lobbied to weaken the proposal by using negotiations over a "free trade" deal with Europe—the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—to press for a loosening of protections against tar sands.

The proposed legislation unveiled Tuesday suggests this lobbying was successful. Under the submitted rules, corporations sending raw fuel to European refiners would not have to single out tar sands as more polluting, but rather, would be allowed to report on the "average default value" of all raw fossil fuels when meeting their 6 percent emissions cuts. Critics charge that the new methodology, which was first revealed to the press in June, undermines efforts to disincentivize tar sands imports into Europe.

The move by the Commission comes despite the fact that it has officially recognized that tar sands oil extraction is dangerous for the planet. Bitumen is one of the dirtiest fuels on earth, produces up to five times more carbon than conventional crude oil, and its extraction process is extremely energy-intensive and destructive to ecosystems and creates large reservoirs of toxic waste.

"The Commission has recognized the highly polluting nature of tar sands but is going to let this climate killer be used by European oil companies with no penalty at all," said Colin Roche, extractives campaigner with Friends of the Earth Europe. "The Commission has clearly seen the problem but – under heavy pressure from the oil industry and the Canadian and US government – chosen not to act on it."

Tuesday's proposal will be put through a two-month fast-track approval process and still must be debated by member states and rubber stamped by the European Union parliament.

In June, the first shipment of tar sands to Europe was met with protests, with demonstrators urging that tar sands must be left in the ground. The release of the Commission's proposal on Tuesday comes the same day 700,000 barrels of tar sands oil are slated to arrive in Italy, marking the second such shipment to Europe.

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