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Europe moves closer to oil sands ban

The European Union has moved closer than ever to a tantamount ban on imports from Alberta’s oil sands.

Its latest decision – a proposed acknowledgment that Alberta produces some of the planet’s most carbon intensive fuel – comes after more than a year of high-level diplomatic skirmishes.

Green advocates are calling it “a huge campaign success” while Canadian officials are reportedly “very concerned.”

The entire controversy began in 2007 when the European Union proposed a clean energy law known as the Fuel Quality Directive.

It would operate in the same way as a low carbon fuel standard, where road fuels with high carbon footprints are discouraged.

Fuel from Alberta’s oil sands requires more energy to produce than fuel from conventional operations – think oil derricks in Texas – generally resulting in higher greenhouse gas emissions.

Diplomatic wrangling over just how much higher turned the issue into a major political battleground in early 2010. Initial versions of the law proposed a large carbon footprint for oil sands fuel.

Those provisions were removed last March after intense lobbying from Canadian diplomats, Albertan ministers and multinational oil corporations. (Read a Tyee report here).

It all comes as Canada fine-tunes a major free trade deal with the European Union – a deal Canadian negotiators have reportedly threatened to void if the fuel quality issue is not decided in their favour.

A European Union study released last month concluded that producing Alberta oil sands fuel creates 23 percent more emissions than traditional sources.

Environment Commissioner Connie Hedegaard is now attempting to get those types of numbers included in the fuel quality legislation.

“This is a huge campaign success,” said Colin Baines, lead campaigner for the Co-operative Group, a publicly owned UK co-operative. “It would effectively prohibit tar sands fuel from entering Europe.”

“We think it’s important to look at these things scientifically and comprehensively,” International Trade Minister Peter Van Loan wrote to the Globe and Mail, noting that Canada was “very concerned” about the development.

Virtually all oil sands exports go the United States, but as previous Tyee reporting explained, industry advocates worry European restrictions will be copied by other countries – a sort of clean energy domino effect.

Geoff Dembicki reports for the Tyee.

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