Historical US climate rally reignites European opposition to tar sands


On Sunday 35,000 protesters from 30 states descended on Washington DC in the largest climate rally that the US has ever seen. They called on US President Barack Obama to live up to his supersize climate rhetoric by shutting down the Keystone XL pipeline project. The controversial pipeline – if approved – would transport crude oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta in Canada to refineries and ports in Texas for export to regions like Europe. In a display of solidarity and things to come, campaign groups in Europe such as 350.org, Friends of the Earth, No Tar Sands, and People and Planet kicked off a renewed campaign to keep dirty tar sands out of Europe and land-locked in Canada. Activists have started petitioning governments to officially label tar sands oil a highly polluting fuel, which they will be able to do in a critical EU vote that takes place later this year.


MT @NoTarSands: KXL affects us too, as oil intended for export to UK. Keep #tarsands out of EU: http://bit.ly/UutVzS  #ForwardOnClimate


Key Points

  • Opposition to dirty tar sands oil from Canada picks up across Europe and North America as 35,000 gather for the largest climate rally in US history and call on Barack Obama to stop a dangerous pipeline. Not only do tar sands cause massive regional environmental and human damage, but it is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, representing one of the world’s primary carbon bombs according to NASA scientist James Hansen. By 2020 tar sands emissions are projected to add 420 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere, equivalent to the current emissions of Saudi Arabia.
  • Tar sands are currently ‘all dressed up with nowhere to go’ and activists from all walks of life in America and Europe are campaigning to keep it that way. The tar sands industry in the Canadian province of Alberta is expanding at a rapid pace, but at present this growth is being impeded by a bottleneck in export routes. In Canada the government is currently experiencing massive opposition to the construction of pipelines from Alberta to both the East and West coast. That’s why the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada across the US to the coast of Texas has become an iconic battle for the climate movement. While the industry is facing difficulty in exporting its dirty crude with pipelines and tanker ships, it is also losing access to crucial markets like Europe due to strong public opposition to tar sands imports.
  • Canada have been trying to exert power in Europe to open the floodgates for tar sands, but fortunately Members of the European Parliament have strong public support and a great opportunity to resist Canadian lobbying at a vote later this year. The tar sands industry and its friends in the Canadian government are known to have used any means possible to expand the industry, denying fundamental rights to indigenous communitiesgagging scientists, and even meddling with key climate legislation in other countries. Just last month, two Alberta ministers descended on 11 European capitals between them, in an effort to water down a proposal to the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive, a piece of legislation which would effectively keep tar sands out of Europe and help defuse this major carbon bomb.


Tar sands are deposits of bitumen crude oil mixed with sand. Recent technological advances have made it possible to extract this oil and refine it into viable gasoline. The most prolific source of tar sands is situated within the the boreal forests and peatlands of Canada, which are a carbon sink that helps to regulate the global climate. Scientific predictions show that 10 operational tar sands mining projects would destroy enough peat to release 11.4 million to 47.3 million metric tons of stored carbon into the atmosphere. The production of oil from tar sands in Alberta alone is expected to triple from 1.5 to 4.5 million barrels a day by 2035, adding 706 million tonnes of CO2 to global emissions a year. Due to the rapid expansion of the industry and the technology used in the production process, regulators have been unable or unwilling to keep up, and have failed to provide effective environmental monitoring systems. This has meant that tar sands extraction creates a range of well-documented problems including: health impacts on First Nations communities (e.g. increased cancer rates and immune diseases), environmental degradation associated with toxic tailing ponds, health impacts on regional wildlife, high levels of water use and water contamination, and a widespread loss of land.

The proposed expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline would carry Canadian tar sands crude through the US to refineries for export to foreign markets. The pipeline would travel over the Ogallala Reservoir and travel near countless waterways, farms and ranches. The amount of carbon produced by tar sands production would be devastating to the state of the climate – the equivalent of up to an additional 4 million passenger vehicles annually, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. US citizens already fought, and won, a fight against this expansion. The first Keystone XL campaign was successful because of the cross-coordination in organizing efforts. Diverse groups such as 350, political donors, conservative landowners and agricultural communities united for huge political protests, timed around the elections in the US. However, the project was revived by members of congress, forcing civil society to mobilise once more, and Sunday’s ‘Forward on Climate’ protest came at a critical time for climate policy in the United States and Europe. The aim of building the KXL pipeline is to bring tar sands oil down to Texas so it can be exported, Europe is being eyed up as a key future market. In fact, a US company called Valero is currently drawing up plans to bring KXL oil into the UK via Wales. The local community in Pembrokeshire have vowed to resist this.

The Canadian Department for International Affairs and Foreign Trade, and the Pan-European Oil Sands team have been working hard to ensure that tar sands oil can be successfully exported to Europe. They have driven an extensive lobbying campaign to rally support and block a key proposal to EU legislation, there have been numerous accusations of collusion with European politicians, particularly in the UK and the Netherlands. The piece of legislation under-fire from Canada and its oil-friends is a proposed amendment to the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) which aims to introduce a compulsory carbon reduction target on fuels used for transport. Within the methodology for achieving the proposed targets, tar sands oil is identified as having much higher carbon emissions than regular crude oil. If adopted, the proposal would make tar sands oil more expensive than regular crude in Europe, blocking its expansion through the EU market. This would set an important legislative and economic precedent for other regions and markets around the world. Canadian lobbying efforts have already paid off, forcing the EU to conduct an “impact assessment” on the Directive. The results of the European Commission’s impact assessment are due on 13 March and the crucial vote on the FQD will take place sometime between June and September later this year.



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Top quotes

‘What we have here is an oil industry that is landlocked, that is desperate to find markets for its oil and is increasingly finding it difficult to do so.’ – Mike Brune, Executive Director, Sierra Club

More tweets

MT @DavidKThorpe: Hate the idea of tar sands? Support this EU fuel quality directive… #ForwardOnClimate: http://act.350.org/sign/uk-fuel-quaility-directive/?=TW … via@350

MT @NoTarSands: KXL affects us too, as oil intended for export to UK. Keep #tarsands out of EU: http://bit.ly/UutVzS  #ForwardOnClimate