The Canadian government has spent the last two years trying to get the EU to ignore the extremely high carbon footprint of oil produced from tar sands. But why? Well, we hope the explanation below will shed some light on what is turning into quite a saga.

Around the time International Stop the Tar Sands Day was just an idea bouncing between Berlin and London, something quite mysterious happened in Brussels. The default value for tar sands oil went missing from the draft of the European Union's Fuel Quality Directive (FQD).

On March 24th, 2010, Reuters reported it had received leaked documents that the European Commission (EC) had dropped all reference to tar sands oil from the latest draft of the EU FQD. This, in spite of the fact previous drafts contained a distinct and separate default value for oil derived from tar sands of 107gCO2eq/MJ[i] in Article 7a of EU FQD. Article 7a obliges transport fuel suppliers to reduce the lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of their product per unit of energy by 6% by 2020 (compared to 2010 baseline). Lifecycle GHG emissions are all GHG emissions produced during the “life” of a fuel, from its extraction as a natural resource to its combustion in fuel tanks. Each transport fuel has different lifecycle GHG emissions and many were given their own default values within the FQD. For example, conventional oil has the default value of 86gCO2eq/MJ in the FQD, while fuels produced from coal were given a value of 172 gCO2eq/MJ.[ii] Thus, the FQD favours the selling of fuels that produce less GHG emissions.

So how did tar sands oil with a carbon footprint between 2-4 times more than conventional oil lose its default value in the FQD?

Two months before the documents leak, the Canadian ambassador to the European Union, Ross Hornby, sent a letter to the EC Environment Department’s Director General, Karl Falkenberg, in protest of the proposed provisions for Article 7a. Hornby claimed, creating “a separate category for oil sands is, not science-based and would amount to unjustifiable discrimination against the oil sands." In other words, this would be a trade barrier. In reality, according to Hornby, the “lifecycle GHG emissions from oil sands crude are only are 5 to 15% higher than the average crude consumed in the United States.”[iii] The EC decided to yield to the Canadian government’s demand. The default value for tar sands oil of 107gCO2eq/MJ completely vanished from the FQD without a trace.

Fortunately, the European media and civil society organisations such as Greenpeace, Transport & Environment, World Wildlife Fund, The Co-Operative, and Friends of the Earth Europe picked up on this and the latter moved quickly. In a combined report to Members of the European Parliament (MEP) the civil society organisations insisted the EC “reintroduce (the) specific default value for tar sands” in order for Article 7a to “encourage the use of lower GHG intensity fuels” within the EU and “reduce GHG emissions from fossil fuel pathways.” They also pointed out that Hornby’s claim that the lifecycle GHG emissions of tar sands oil was only 5-15% higher than conventional oil was not based on “independent or peer reviewed” studies. Independent studies had actually revealed that lifecycle GHG emissions related to tar sands oil were 18%-49% higher than conventional oil.[iv]

A tug of war between organisations of civil society and the Canadian government with the EC in the middle ensued. The question at the heart of the debate was “should the EU consider tar sands oil a dirtier product than conventional oil?” In October 2010, after months of lobbying by both sides, the EC delayed its decision on tar sands oil to late 2011 in order to do their own studies on the lifecycle GHG emissions of oil produced from tar sands.

Meanwhile, a delegation of MEPs visited the tar sands development area of northern Alberta, Canada in the following month. The “tar sands tour” received mixed reviews. Questions were raised if MEPs actually got the full picture of the tar sands because most of the tour was spent with officials from the Canadian and Albertan governments and industry representatives. Aside from one informal meeting held in the Canadian capital Ottawa, very little time and attention was given to representatives of Canadian civil society or the First Nations communities affected by tar sands development.  By the end of the tar sands tour, Philip Bradbourn, chairman of the EU delegation had such a favourable impression of the tar sands he was moved to say “I think we were all very, very impressed with what we saw.”[v] 

Things were looking pretty bleak. The Canadian government with the backing of major European companies with interests in the tar sands (Shell, British Petroleum, Total Oil, Statoil) formed a very powerful lobby. But, nearly a year to the date of the initial documents leak, on March 25th, 2011, the EU Climate Change Commissioner Connie Hedegaard would make this announcement in regards to the FQD:


"It is the Commission's intention, at this stage, to present a draft implementing measure ... that will include default values both for oil sands and for oil shale."[vi] 

In theory, the issue of tar sands oil in the EU FQD will be concluded at the end of the year. A peer reviewed study conducted for the European Commission and completed last May confirmed the value of 107gCO2eq/MJ is the correct value for tar sands oil.[vii] In September/October, EU member states will receive the draft of the FQD with the 107 default value and decide if they will support or reject it. The governments of the UK and Netherlands have both expressed their intentions not to support the draft.[viii] France and Italy both have oil companies with tar sands interests and may also reject the draft. There are few who doubt the Canadian government will not take their case against the EU to World Trade Organisation for creating an “unfair trade barrier” if the default value for tar sands oil is approved. It is a story that is far from over. The bizarre twist to the story is actually there is very little tar sands oil in the EU and there are no plans to start shipping tar sands oil to the EU in the near future (at the moment).

So why all the lobbying by the Canadian government on behalf of the tar sands industry? Rob Renner, Alberta Environment Minister said it best:

"It is not because we are protecting a customer base [in Europe], but because we respect the fact that decisions in Europe find their way into other policies around the world."[ix]


For the Canadian government, the EU FQD is about setting a precedent. It is about getting the EU – one of the most environmentally conscious economies in the world – to say tar sands oil is no better and no worse than conventional oil in terms of GHG emissions. In December of 2009, the Canadian government launched “a pan-European oil sands advocacy strategy” for this purpose. Headed by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, the strategy´s objective is “to protect and advance Canadian interests related to oil sands.”[x] If the Canadian government can get the EU , all criticism of the tar sands having a carbon footprint 2-4 times higher than conventional oil falls aside. All doubts of the United States (the tar sands industry’s biggest customer) about increasing tar sands oil consumption are swept away. 


But, what happens if the EU does set a separate default value for tar sands oil this fall?

This would set one of the first international precedents that tar sands oil does indeed have a higher carbon footprint than conventional oil. This would be a big step down the road of shutting down the most destructive energy project on earth; the tar sands industry of northern Alberta. Other countries look to the EU when formulating their environmental policies and they may follow suit. This could stop tar sands and oil shale development from going global. The people of the European Union have a unique opportunity to make history this fall.

This is an opportunity we do not plan on missing. We are asking citizens of the EU to write their Environment Ministries (citizens of the UK need to write their Transport Ministry) demanding their governments support the setting of the default value of 107gCO2eq/MJ for tar sands oil in the FQD. Canadians, we ask you to write your Department of Foreign Affairs demanding the Canadian government calls off its "pan European oil sands advocacy strategy" and stops interfering with European democracy on the tar sands industry behalf.

If we all do a little, a lot will be accomplished......


Don't know what to write your Environment Ministry? Don't worry, it does not have to be fancy. Short and sweet is perfect. LUSH UK has an excellent template for a letter here:

Avaaz has started a petition to demand the UK government supports the FQD. Add your name!

All other questions and comments about the EU FQD can be sent to Derek at:



[i] 107gC02eq/MJ = 107 grams of carbon dioxide equivalents (all GHG - carbon dioxide, methane, etc.) per megajoule (unit of measurement for energy)

[ii] The Co-Operative, Transport & Environment, Friends of the Earth Europe, Greenpeace & World Wildlife Fund, ´How to Ensure Real Emissions Reductions from Europe´s Transport Fuels - Fuel Quality Directive - Article 7a: Implementing Provisions´, 2010.

[iii] Letter of Ross Hornby to Karl Falkenberg, January 25th, 2010.

[iv] The Co-Operative, Transport & Environment, Friends of the Earth Europe, Greenpeace & World Wildlife Fund, ´How to Ensure Real Emissions Reductions from Europe´s Transport Fuels - Fuel Quality Directive - Article 7a: Implementing Provisions´, 2010.



[vii] Brandt A. Upstream greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from Canadian oil sands as a feedstock for European refineries. Available at:




European citizens take a strong stand and let your government know that the tar sands are not worth the risk to their climate change commitments. As well join your Canadian counters parts in sending a clear message to Canada and the EU Commission that the Tar Sands are far too dangerous to the environment and  to a sustainable future for generations to come.

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