Blame Canada: Priorities For Action In An Age Of Dirty Oil

From Northwest Ethical. Read it online here

The Alberta oil sands industry has been at the centre of debate over proposed European Union (EU) low-carbon fuel standards targeting unconventional oil – as well as over lobbying tactics employed by Canada to fight the proposals.

At first glance, the EU action looks like a significant climate initiative. It has certainly been a wake-up call for the industry. But in 2010, Canada provided just 0.1% of EU oil imports – and that oil was light sweet crude, not bitumen. Virtually every drop of Canadian oil is consumed in Canada or exported to the United States. We strongly support meaningful policy initiatives to improve the environmental performance of the oil sands (see next story), or reduce our reliance on fossil fuels generally. But it is hard to see what immediate impact EU standards could have on oil sands production, or on global greenhouse gas emissions.

We would be first to agree that the oil sands are a challenge from an environmental and social perspective – that’s why we devote so much effort to this issue. But we are puzzled when we see the oil sands singled out as uniquely “dirty”, because this seems to imply there is such a thing as “clean” oil. For example: every year, the oil industry continues to flare billions of cubic metres of natural gas – despite the availability of technologies that allow flaring to be minimized. As well as being an important source of greenhouse gas emissions, flaring produces pollutants that are directly harmful to human health. It also wastes a valuable resource, often in countries where many people still lack access to energy. Russia tops the World Bank’s list of flaring countries. In second place comes Nigeria, where some of the world’s largest oil companies are involved – despite a flaring ban. For example, in its 2010 Sustainability Report, Shell reported flaring over 30% more gas than in 2009, largely because of increased production in Nigeria.

Nigeria provided 4.07% of EU oil imports in 2010 – while Russia topped the list with 27.7%.

If the Alberta oil sands are one manifestation of a global “dirty oil” phenomenon, why do they attract so much attention? We don’t know, but the words of that Academy Award-nominated song are ringing in our heads: “We must blame them and make a fuss, before somebody thinks of blaming us”.


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