Rhein on Energy and Climate

Tar sands represent the most climate-damaging fossil energy. They are found in huge quantities in the Canadian province Alberta.

Because of their low concentration ( 3 percent fuel components), their conversion into oil requires gigantic movements of soil . The production of gasoline/fuel from tar sands is therefore both costly and energy-intensive. Including the energy inputs into mining and processing C02 emissions from gasoline made from tar sands are more than a fifth higher than from gasoline made of conventional sources.

Thanks to higher world market prices for conventional oil, the Canadian production of oil made from tar sands has been steadily rising during the last 20 years; today it accounts for about 2 percent of the world oil production. The production will keep rising in response to increasing demand for oil, further rising oil rices and, last not least, because tar sands make up a substantial share of the global reserves of fossil energies.

Sooner or later Canada will therefore want to export tar-sand oil to countries beyond the US; and sooner or later the EU will be confronted with the issue of whether to import Canadian oil or gasoline from tar sand, the more so as the biggest EU oil company Royal Dutch and Total have invested heavily in Alberta.

At present, the issue splits the EU Commission. The Climate Commissioner wants to ban the import. She argues that such imports would counter-act the basic objective of EU climate policy to reduce C02 emissions.

The Trade Commissioner rejects an import ban, because he is afraid it might displease the Canadian government and foil his plans for concluding a bilateral free trade agreement with Canada.

Thus, short-commercial interests are pitted against long term climate considerations, which is likely to happen more often in the future.

There are at least four arguments that plead in favour of the Climate Commissioner:

  • Canada is at least as much as interested in a free trade deal as the EU, which can easily do without such a deal. Its interest in exporting tar-sand oil from Alberta to the EU should be marginal. It is therefore unlikely to compromise a free trade because of an EU ban on the import of tar-sand oil products.
  • The EU should send an unambiguous signal to the world that it values its long-term fight against climate change higher than potential trade interests.
  • The EP with its strong commitment to environment and climate might refuse approval to an EU-Canada trade agreement granting duty free access for tar-sand gasoline.
  • It would be preferable to have the WTO decide on the legality of an import ban for climate reasons. The international community needs such a judicial guidance.

This being said an EU import ban will be no more than a symbolic gesture without a positive impact whatever on the global climate. Tar sands constitute the second most important fossil fuel resource on earth after Saudi Arabian oil; and Canada possesses the single biggest stock. It would therefore be naïve to believe the EU might influence the international community by possible ban. Sooner or later most oil consuming countries, even the EU will resort to it for satisfying their rising oil needs.

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