In its ongoing battle against global warming, Europe is drawing a line in the sand. The oil sand, that is.

 

European leaders decided Tuesday to classify oil sands, aka tar sands, as worse for the environment than ordinary crude, a move that has infuriated many in Canada. This comes after more than a year of study by the European Commission, the EU Observer notes, and despite a long lobbying push from Canada and the oil industry.

 

But Europe barely gets a drop of oil from tar sands, and less than 1 percent of its total crude oil imports even come from Canada, the world's top tar-sands developer. So why does Canada care what Europe thinks?

 

Officially, Canadian officials are calling the decision "unjustified" and "discriminatory," arguing it's a matter of fairness and accuracy. But as the Financial Times reports, they may also be afraid the neighbors are watching.

 

The U.S. gets nearly a quarter of its crude oil imports from Canada, and it's also considering a 1,600-mile oil pipeline that would connect tar sands in Canada to oil refineries in Texas. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline is already controversial in America — not only for environmental reasons, but also for alleged corruption in the Obama administration — and with the U.S. set to approve or reject the proposal by year's end, Canada may be as upset about the European Commission's timing as it is about the ruling itself. 

 

"That's why the Canadians are so worried about this," a policy advisor with the European campaign group Transport & Environment tells the FT. "They know it will set a precedent and have financial implications for them."

 

The tar-sands ruling is part of a broader measure pushed by Connie Hedegaard, the European Union's climate change commissioner, that sets environmental standards for a wide range of fuels. "With this measure, we are sending a clear signal to fossil fuels suppliers," Hedegaard said in a statement Tuesday. "As fossil fuels will be a reality in the foreseeable future, it's important to give them the right value."

 

The new measure gives tar sands a greenhouse-gas value of 107 grams per megajoule of fuel, the Guardian reports, compared with 87.5 g/MJ of conventional crude. And since it requires energy suppliers to cut the carbon footprint of transportation fuels, it could "all but rule out imports of tar sands," the Guardian adds, unless suppliers can offset their tar-sands pollution by also investing in clean-energy sources.

 

Tar sand consists of bitumen — a thick, sticky form of crude oil — that's mixed in the ground with sand, water and clay, among other things. It was long ignored by the oil industry since mining and refining it is so energy-intensive, but Canada has increasingly tried to capitalize on its vast deposits in recent years. With global oil supplies shrinking and prices high, it finally makes economic sense to produce oil from tar sands. But to many environmentalists, the oil only seems cost-effective because no one is paying for its ecological toll — at least not yet.

 

Getting tar sands out of the ground is a chore in itself, often requiring widespread forest clearing similar to mountaintop-removal mining. But then it also must be refined into usable oil, a process that critics say raises its carbon footprint to unacceptable levels. That's the rationale behind the European Commission's decision, although it's being met with stiff resistance from industry advocates and Canadian officials. They argue there's no justification for classifying tar-sands oil differently from other oil, and have reportedly threatened to take the issue to the World Trade Organization.

 

(Coincidentally, Canada's environment minister also reported Tuesday that, due to "insufficient or inadequate environmental monitoring systems," the environmental impact of oil sands remains unknown. "As a consequence," the report concludes, "decisions about oil sands projects have been based on incomplete, poor or non-existent environmental information.")

 

Although the European Commission has approved the new measure, it's not yet set in stone. EU member states will vote on the proposal in four to six weeks, according to the Guardian, and final approval will then depend on the European parliament.

 

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