Canada: Favoring Dirty Oil over the Environment

The Conservative government is spending enormous amounts of time and public resources lobbying on behalf of dirty Alberta oil. They spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying on behalf of the Keystone XL pipeline through the US but they have also opened a significant European front.

Over the next week Prime Minister Stephen Harper as well as ministers Joe Oliver,  John Baird, and Ed Fast are traveling through European capitals partly to try and convince officials to undermine the European Union’s move to reduce carbon emissions from fuel. The current trip is part of the 3 1/2 year-old Pan-European Oil Sands Advocacy Strategy. In response to growing public opposition to the destruction wrought by Alberta’s Tar Sands, Foreign Affairs laid out a Pan-European Oil Sands Advocacy Strategy designed to “protect and advance Canadian interests related to the oil sands,” and reframe “the European debate on oil sands.” According to internal documents, Canadian embassies tailored messages for each country “based on lines from Ottawa” focused on government efforts to reduce the industry’s environmental and social impacts.

As part of the strategy, Canadian diplomats were offered trips to Alberta and industry-sponsored conferences; instructed to monitor environmental activism; told to engage in public relations geared at combating “significant negative media coverage”; and instructed to share “intelligence” with “likeminded allies,” including European energy giants BP, Statoil, Total and Shell, which have “huge investments” in Alberta.

In August 2010 the Pan-European Oil Sands team reported:

Oslo [Canadian embassy in Norway] holds regular meetings with Statoil to update on each others’ activities and coordinate where appropriate. Hague is enhancing its engagement with the private sector and met with Shell recently. Paris has regular meetings with Total … London is also in regular contact with the private sector including meetings with Shell, BP and Royal Bank of Scotland as well as Canadian oil companies.

The Canadian government has also trained its diplomats to promote the Tar Sands. A February 2011 retreat brought diplomats from 13 different European offices together with a number of federal government departments, Alberta’s energy minister and representatives from Total, Shell, Statoil and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. At this “training,” diplomats were given “an industry perspective” as well as information on the official positions of both the Canadian and Albertan governments. An email summarizing this meeting to officials from Foreign Affairs, Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada explained that:

Two key messages from day one were: oil sands advocacy in Europe is now recognized as a priority for all concerned; and there is a clear need for regular in-house training to equip those of us on the ground with the expertise to deal with this highly technical file.

The central goal of Harper’s current lobbying efforts and the Pan-European Oil Sands Advocacy Strategy more generally is to oppose the designation of the Tar Sands in the EU’s proposed Fuel Quality Directive. The Fuel Quality Directive would force suppliers to shun heavy carbon emitting oil in favour of lower-emission fuels.

Since Europe does not import tar sands oil the legislation would have little direct effect on the industry but it could bolster movements against the Tar Sands elsewhere. “While Europe is not an important market for oil sands-derived products, Europe legislation/regulation, such as the EU Fuel Quality Directive, has the potential to impact the industry globally,” a Canadian diplomat in London, Kumar Gupta, explained in an April 2011 email released through access to information legislation.

This country’s diplomats have lobbied forcefully against the EU Fuel Quality Directive’s designation for the tar sands. Diplomats have been tasked with “targeting” and lobbying key European politicians, “especially from the ruling and influential parties.”  Friends of the Earth Europe found that Canadian officials met British and European representatives 110 times between September 2009 and July 2011 in a bid to derail the new fuel legislation. The goal was to ensure “non-discriminatory market access for oil sands-derived products”, according to documents uncovered by Friends of the Earth.

Chris Davies, a British member of the European parliament, told Reuters last May that Canada’s lobbying campaign “has been stunning in its intensity.” Highlighting the unique nature of Canada’s campaign, Satu Hassi, a Finnish MP, said: “There have been massive lobbying campaigns by the car industry, by the chemicals industry, banks, food giants, etc. But so far I have not seen such a lobbying campaign by any state.”

As the EU has debated the Fuel Quality Directive, the Conservatives have issued ever more extreme threats in their bid to have the Tar Sands exempted. At the start of last year David Plunkett, Canada’s ambassador to the EU, addressed a letter stating that: “If the final measures single out oil sands crude in a discriminatory, arbitrary or unscientific way, or are otherwise inconsistent with the EU’s international trade obligations, I want to state that Canada will explore every avenue at its disposal to defend its interests, including at the World Trade Organization.” The Ottawa Citizen summed this up plainly: “Canada threatens trade war with EU ahead of oilsands vote.”  Canada has also issued warnings to the EU that its support for action on climate change risks disrupting world oil supplies.

The Conservatives’ strategy seems to have born some fruit. In February 2012, the Globe and Mail described an EU vote as having “given the Canadian government a win in its battle to preserve international markets for oil sands producers against an environmental lobbying effort, which wants refiners worldwide to pay financial penalties for using the carbon intensive Alberta crude as well as other sources of ‘dirty’ fuel.” After the vote, Friends of the Earth Europe spokesperson Darek Urbaniak lamented this influence, insisting that: “some European governments have given in to Canadian and oil lobby pressure, instead of saying no to climate-hostile Tar Sands.”

The  European Parliament is set to vote on the Fuel Quality Directive later in the year and Harper wants Canada’s carbon heavy Tar Sands oil excluded.

Yves Engler is the author of 12 books. His latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People's History of the Canadian Military . Read other articles by Yves.