Oil Sands and Fuel Quality Directive, or the Impossible Quest for Facts

, by Alexandrine Gauvin

Oil Sands and Fuel Quality Directive, or the Impossible Quest for Facts

On 4 October, the European Commission voted in favour of the review of the Fuel Quality Directive, resulting in a first setback for Canada’s oil sands in Europe.

To the untrained eye, this debate is basically a battle between the powerful oil industry and the extremely influential environmentalist lobby. But what exactly is the Fuel Quality Directive and why are Canada and the oil industry fighting so hard to make their point on this directive? After all, oil sands are not exported to the EU for the moment, and growth plans only concern its current exports to the United States. In other words, why all the fuss?

The Fuel Quality Directive applies greenhouse gas default values to different types of oils used in transportation, in order to quantify the CO2 emissions from the production of these oils. The purpose of this exercise is to create standards encouraging the consumption of greener oils. This directive was created in 1998 and in 2007, the Commission decided to review it to reflect their new objectives to reduce CO2 emissions in the EU. What happened of concern to Canada and the industry is that oil sands were categorized as an “unconventional” source because of its more polluting production process: oil sands were assigned a value of 107 grams CO2 equivalent per megajoule (CO2eq/MJ) of fuel, as opposed to the 87.5g CO2eq/MJ average for crude oil.

And here comes the hard part: finding the facts. It is well known that trying to obtain objective and complete information from the eco-friendly NGOs will result in a wide range of studies proving how harmful oil sands are to the environment. Not to say it is not the truth, but then if oil sands extraction is so much more polluting than crude oil, how can Canada defend that oil sands should not be assigned a different value than crude oil? David Plunkett, Ambassador of Canada to the EU, says “We are not opposed to the goal of the Fuel Quality Directive; however, we are opposed to Canadian oil being unfairly discriminated against without scientific justification. Oil sands crude has similar greenhouse gas emissions to many other crude oils imported by Europe.” This statement, along with pro-oil sands brochures available on official websites, are the only sources of information available to the general public to understand what Canada and the oil sands industry are fighting for.

The Commission attested that it has been under immense advocacy pressure from government and industry officials to modify this calculation method in favour of oil sands, but has resisted and is proud to present a directive that reflects its belief that oil sands are more polluting than crude oil. This pressure from Canada and the industry has obviously been entirely focused on decision-makers, neglecting to enforce a more holistic communication strategy to make their point of view known to the public and civil society. Environmentalists, on the other hand, have applied a very public strategy based on conveying a bad image of oil sands and on shifting the debate from the calculation method of the Fuel Quality Directive to an open war against oil sands. Now, no matter the real facts on the matter, it is obvious who the winners are: the strategy of taking public opinion into account has cancelled all the “behind the doors” efforts of Canada. The Fuel Quality Directive debate is not over yet: it still needs approval from Member States, which means that the lobbying battle between environmentalists on one hand, and industry officials and Canada on the other, is far from over.

This “working in the shadows” culture is slowly but surely discrediting Canada’s efforts to defend its point on the matter. If the country’s position on EU’s Fuel Quality Directive is legitimate and justified, there is absolutely no reason not to share and expose it. It is not about being for or against oil sands in this case, it’s about making sure the EU produces fair directives based on scientific facts. When everything is said and done, Canada’s struggle to effectively defend its own industry in the European public space, and not only focusing advocacy work on an executive elite, will cause its demise and the overwhelming amount of environmentalists’ propaganda and aggressive lobbying will get the best of the debate. Has anything been learned on the power of public opinion from the ban on seal products? This failure to clearly inform the general public on Canada’s position on the Fuel Quality Directive did not only result in a first strike against oil sands; it’s a powerful statement on the importance of taking civil society more seriously, and adjusting advocacy strategies accordingly.

Your comments
  • On 28 October 2011 at 14:14, by Alexander Bakus Replying to: Oil Sands and Fuel Quality Directive, or the Impossible Quest for Facts

    Hey Alex, I think you hit the nail on the head with the painful lesson that hasn’t been learned regarding the seal trade issue. Public opinion in EU has definitely been underrated by Canada, as our government would rather solve trade issues diplomatically and on a “political only” level.

    You can’t blame Canada for this, as they’ve learned a tough lesson after NAFTA negotiations and the public opinion affecting that trade agreement. Look at how Canada is dealing with the Canada-EU Free trade agreement, absolutely quiet in Canada, no publicity, no traction, no public engagement. If it’s keeping quiet in-house, why would you expect it to do otherwise outside?

    It’s also a question of mandate and funding. The Mission of Canada to the European Union, simply doesn’t have the necessary funds, manpower, or lobby weight, to push through a successful public outreach campaign which will overtake the powerful environmentalist lobby in the EU. Canada’s great foreign service officers, are already stretched out to the limit on their multiple dossiers, and having little political will from Ottawa, they can only do so much.

    Instead of fighting fire with fire, Canada has chosen to maximize it’s impact and resources and go after the decision-making body within the EU. It makes sense, and while it might not lead to the intended result, you have to keep in mind, that nobody else in Canada is worried about EU’s Fuel Quality Directive. Why? because as you correctly pointed out, we don’t sell the oil to EU, and so the problem is largely ignored. Industry is treating this as “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there”. Think about it, at the end of the day, if there are sales to EU and it justifies the cost, industry will deliver it’s lobby powers to EU. If they could lobby the Obama government for the Keystone pipeline, they can lobby a 19.5 gram difference in CO2 emissions.

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