German research institute skeptical about the tar sands "green" credentials

Anti tar sands activist at Whitehall. Photo: Suzanne Dhaliwal.



By Derek Leahy

EurActiv – a EU policy news agency – broke the following story last week (Mar. 19th):

“Germany’s largest and most prestigious research institute has pulled out of a Canadian government funded CAN $25 million research project into sustainable solutions to tar sands pollution, citing fears for its environmental reputation.”


The institute in question is the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres which has been involved in the Helmhotlz Alberta Initiative (HAI). Set up as an independent international research partnership in 2009, the HAI is dedicated to finding sustainable solutions for looming tar sands industry issues such as cleaning tailings ponds, decreasing energy consumption when upgrading bitumen, land reclamation, and supporting global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. The institute also studies sustainable solutions in lignite coal mining in Alberta.

Twenty Helmholtz Association scientists have ceased involvement in the HAI because of a moratorium on collaboration by the German Ministry of Education and Research. The Ministry wants to do an independent assessment of the environmental credentials of the project to ensure it conforms with principles of sustainability. The assessment is expected to be completed by June.

“As an environmental research centre we have an independent role as an honest broker and doing research in this constellation could have had reputational problems for us, especially after Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol,” 

Professor Frank Messner, Helmholtz Environmental Research Centre head of staff told EurActiv from Leipzig. 

“It’s a clear signal that Canada’s energy and climate policy is not accepted by the international community, especially Germany.”

If this is true, why has Germany along with other European Union member states consistently failed to support the one piece of EU legislation that would send a very “clear signal” to Canada about its climate and energy policies; the EU Fuel Quality Directive (FQD)? Has the EU succumbed to a massive lobbying effort by the Canadian government and the oil industry?
The debate over the FQD is now entering its fourth year. In accordance with EU efforts to tackle climate change, the FQD was revised in 2008 and 2009 to require transport fuel suppliers to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of their product by 6% by 2020 (2010 baseline).

Due to the extremely energy intensive process to extract and upgrade tar sands crude, the FQD labelled fuels from tar sands as producers of more GHG emissions than conventional oil. Fuel suppliers would thus be discouraged from buying and selling high GHG emitting fuels like those from tar sands.

The Canadian government lobby against the tar sands being labeled as a higher polluter in the FQD has been underway ever since. The Canadians claim this designation is not based on science and it is a unfair discrimination of the tar sands. An EU commissioned report in 2011 by Adam Brandt of Stanford University confirmed GHG emissions from tar sands crude were 12-40% were higher than conventional crude.

Tar sands crude is not imported by Europe. The Canadian government fears the FQD will set an international precedent that tar sands oil is “dirty oil” an image the government has been working hard to fight domestically and internationally.

“There have been massive lobbying campaigns by the car industry, by the chemicals industry, banks, food giants, etc.,” 

Satu Hassi, a Finnish MEP told Reuters in 2012 about the Canadian lobbying efforts. 

“But so far I have not seen such a lobbying campaign by any state.”

Internal documents released in 2011 revealed the Canadian government had launched a “pan European oil sands advocacy strategy” the year before “to protect and advance Canadian interests related to the oil sands and broader interests in Europe including a Canada’s [sic] brand in Europe.” Members of the advocacy strategy included Canadian embassies in Norway, Belgium, France, Netherlands and Germany and the Canadian High Commission in the UK. In 2010 alone, at least 110 lobby meetings took place between Canadian officials and EU decision makers about the FQD.

The last vote on the FQD in February 2012 failed to obtain a three quarters majority for or against the draft legislation. The UK, France, Germany, Netherlands and Belgium all abstained from voting, which was actually seen as an improvement on their previous position. Many observers had expected those countries to vote against because they were intensely lobbied by the Canadian government.

Another and perhaps final vote on the FQD could take place in October. The German Ministry of Research and Education’s assessment of the HAI’s tar sands project most likely will not have any impact on any decision in regards to the FQD. But what if the assessment discovers the HAI project has no environmental credentials and does not conform to principles of sustainability? One would assume this would make things even more uncomfortable for EU member states to support the Canadian government’s tenuous claims about the tar sands.

On Monday, anti tar sands activists assembled at Whitehall in London, UK to present a petition to the deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg calling for him to to support the FQD.

Edited by Anders Lorenzen and subedited by Charlotte Paton

Derek grew up in the sleepy little town of Brooklin, Ontario in Canada. After his experience as a backpacker in Copenhagen, Denmark during the UN Climate Change Summit in 2009, Derek decided it was time he stood up for the planet. Shortly thereafter he created International Stop the Tar Sands Day (international rallies to raise awareness about the destructiveness of the tar sands)  and plans on continuing to raise awareness about the tar sands and the need to act upon climate change this decade in the years to come. 

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