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This has been a good week for Alberta’s oil sands — if you measure success in tiny increments. The European Union couldn’t agree to label oil from the ‘sands as dirty, and one of the world’s leading climate scientists released a study showing that large-scale mining of Alberta’s vast bitumen deposits will have very little effect on climate.
The news from Europe is welcome if not quite a full-fledged victory. On Thursday, bureaucrats and experts from the EU’s 27 member countries failed to pass an amendment to the union’s Fuel Quality Directive that would have labelled oil sands oil as 22% more harmful to the climate than convention crude. The vote was 89 in favour of the amendment, 128 opposed with 128 abstaining. Since there was no majority for or against the motion, it neither passed nor failed.
But Thursday’s vote was never going to be the final word. It was, in essence, a survey of environment department bureaucrats and government scientists meant only to inform Europe’s energy and environment ministers. The ministers will hold their own vote — likely late this year — from which will emerge their recommendation to the European Parliament, whose members will cast the ultimate vote on whether or not oil sands oil should be considered “dirty” oil.
It could be a year or more before the EU adopts a final position. And while this week’s stalemate is better than a flat-out recommendation against the oil sands, a lot could yet go wrong because the decision is now in the hands of politicians.
Think back to the EU’s 2009 vote to ban all products from Canada’s seal hunt (except those harvested by Inuit hunters using traditional techniques). When the continent’s elected representatives were voting whether or not to keep out seal pelts, fashions, oil and meat, they were reassured by the union’s environment commission that 98% or more of the pups slaughtered each spring were killed humanely and ethically. Yet still the parliamentarians decided to go with their emotions rather than the science and impose an embargo on Canadian seal products.
It’s not hard to see the same thing happening with the oil sands now that the decision has been bumped up to the political level, especially given that the experts were even less emphatic than they were concerning the seal hunt. Now that the oil sands decision has graduated to the realm of opinion polls and re-election bids, it’s not hard at all to see MEPs — Members of the European Parliament — casting aside any expert doubt and labelling oil sands’ oil less desirable out of a desire to appear “green” conscious.
For the rest of this column, please go to the National Post website: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/02/24/lorne-gunter-a-european-reprieve-for-canadas-oil-sands/