To the untrained eye, this debate is basically a battle between the powerful oil industry and the extremely influential environmentalist lobby. But what exactly is the Fuel Quality Directive and why are Canada and the oil industry fighting so hard to make their point on this directive? After all, oil sands are not exported to the EU for the moment, and growth plans only concern its current exports to the United States. In other words, why all the fuss?
The Fuel Quality Directive applies greenhouse gas default values to different types of oils used in transportation, in order to quantify the CO2 emissions from the production of these oils. The purpose of this exercise is to create standards encouraging the consumption of greener oils. This directive was created in 1998 and in 2007, the Commission decided to review it to reflect their new objectives to reduce CO2 emissions in the EU. What happened of concern to Canada and the industry is that oil sands were categorized as an “unconventional” source because of its more polluting production process: oil sands were assigned a value of 107 grams CO2 equivalent per megajoule (CO2eq/MJ) of fuel, as opposed to the 87.5g CO2eq/MJ average for crude oil.
And here comes the hard part: finding the facts. It is well known that trying to obtain objective and complete information from the eco-friendly NGOs will result in a wide range of studies proving how harmful oil sands are to the environment. Not to say it is not the truth, but then if oil sands extraction is so much more polluting than crude oil, how can Canada defend that oil sands should not be assigned a different value than crude oil? David Plunkett, Ambassador of Canada to the EU, says “We are not opposed to the goal of the Fuel Quality Directive; however, we are opposed to Canadian oil being unfairly discriminated against without scientific justification. Oil sands crude has similar greenhouse gas emissions to many other crude oils imported by Europe.” This statement, along with pro-oil sands brochures available on official websites, are the only sources of information available to the general public to understand what Canada and the oil sands industry are fighting for.
The Commission attested that it has been under immense advocacy pressure from government and industry officials to modify this calculation method in favour of oil sands, but has resisted and is proud to present a directive that reflects its belief that oil sands are more polluting than crude oil. This pressure from Canada and the industry has obviously been entirely focused on decision-makers, neglecting to enforce a more holistic communication strategy to make their point of view known to the public and civil society. Environmentalists, on the other hand, have applied a very public strategy based on conveying a bad image of oil sands and on shifting the debate from the calculation method of the Fuel Quality Directive to an open war against oil sands. Now, no matter the real facts on the matter, it is obvious who the winners are: the strategy of taking public opinion into account has cancelled all the “behind the doors” efforts of Canada. The Fuel Quality Directive debate is not over yet: it still needs approval from Member States, which means that the lobbying battle between environmentalists on one hand, and industry officials and Canada on the other, is far from over.
This “working in the shadows” culture is slowly but surely discrediting Canada’s efforts to defend its point on the matter. If the country’s position on EU’s Fuel Quality Directive is legitimate and justified, there is absolutely no reason not to share and expose it. It is not about being for or against oil sands in this case, it’s about making sure the EU produces fair directives based on scientific facts. When everything is said and done, Canada’s struggle to effectively defend its own industry in the European public space, and not only focusing advocacy work on an executive elite, will cause its demise and the overwhelming amount of environmentalists’ propaganda and aggressive lobbying will get the best of the debate. Has anything been learned on the power of public opinion from the ban on seal products? This failure to clearly inform the general public on Canada’s position on the Fuel Quality Directive did not only result in a first strike against oil sands; it’s a powerful statement on the importance of taking civil society more seriously, and adjusting advocacy strategies accordingly.