First Nations leader in London to fight Canada’s lobbying onslaught

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On Thursday, George Poitras arrived from Paris to begin his short stay in London. George has travelled to Europe to push for the labelling of tar sands as a dirty fuel in the Fuel Quality Directive – at the same time as Alberta Ministers are touring Europe advocating the opposite. George is a former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation and lives in Fort Chipewyan, northern Alberta, downstream from where tar sands companies have been operating for more than forty years.

First stop for George was a meeting we had arranged with Norman Baker, UK Transport Minister, who has responsibility for the UK’s position on the FQD – along with officials from the Departments for Transport and Energy and Climate Change. We’ve met with Norman Baker before, but with George present the mood was much more grounded and real. We were clearly discussing an issue of grave importance to human beings, and not just floating opposing interpretations of statistics and acronyms.

We heard from George that less than 5% of Canada’s tar sands deposits have been exploited and already his community is feeling impacts on their water supplies, food sources, health, and way of life. George pointed out that his people are not adequately consulted and that the UK politicians in that room have far more ability to influence tar sands policy than his own community does at present. We also had FQD policy experts with us who knew the ins and outs of the FQD and Commission process. We collectively put across as strongly as possible the case to Norman Baker why the UK must do everything it can to urge the Commission not to sit on the proposal any longer.

His response was disappointing. The UK government has in the last couple of years grown dangerously close to the Canadian government. This relationship is manifesting itself in much heel-dragging and criticism of the Commission’s proposals. We had hoped that the Minister would agree with us that there have been way too many delays and that we need to get a tar sands value in the FQD as a matter of urgency. Frustratingly, he did not.

George and Franziska after meeting with Transport Minister Norman Baker

George and Franziska after meeting with Transport Minister Norman Baker

Then George spoke at a public meeting in Parliament, chaired by Simon Hughes MP, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats and a close colleague of Norman Baker. Simon had been very vocal about the tar sands in opposition, calling on world leaders to outlaw their extraction, “in the same way they came together to ban land mines, blood diamonds and cluster bombs”. He himself admitted he’s been able to do much less since the Lib Dems joined the Coalition government, but said he was still very concerned about the issue.

George gave a longer talk, telling the story of how people in his community have been getting rare forms of cancer, and how their Doctor, John O’Connor, was demonised for raising concerns, and accused of causing ‘undue alarm’. ‘This is not the Canada you knew,’ he said. ‘Many civil liberties are being stripped away. It is becoming a petrostate.’

George urged the UK government to support a tar sands label in the FQD as soon as possible. ‘We currently have little to no influence on how the Canadian government is going ahead with its expansion plans. Right now foreign policies like the Fuel Quality Directive will have a significant impact on the fate of our people. Our people can’t wait for further deliberations – we’re at a crossroads in our history as to whether we survive.’

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Then Franziska Achterberg, Transport Policy Director of Greenpeace Europe, explained the FQD in detail – its aims and where we are at in the process of implementation, which should in fact have happened several years ago. The FQD was significant, she said, because it would be the first time that carbon intensity would be recognised as criteria in the market. But intense lobbying by Canada and the oil industry had knocked it off track. Now we are waiting for a proposal from the European Commission so that member states can vote again. But the UK government is not supporting the Commission’s approach, which is adding to the delays and uncertainty that it will ever get passed.

She was followed by Jeremy Leggett, energy expert, author and Chairman of the Carbon Tracker initiative. He talked of the disconnect between the assumptions driving capital markets – where fossil fuel assets are treated as if they have zero risk attached to them, and what is likely to happen in the future. If governments act on the science, honour their pledges on climate change, and leave the majority of fossil fuels in the ground, many of these assets will in fact become ‘stranded’ and worthless investments. This carbon bubble is a huge risk for the financial sector, which is just starting to wake up to the problem. Norway’s biggest insurance company recently pulled all its investments in coal and tar sands as a result. Others are likely to follow. The long-term future of the tar sands industry, viewed from this perspective, looks suddenly shaky, and the FQD is an obvious policy for European countries to go ahead and implement.

Simon, when he spoke, was clearly choosing his words very carefully, having spoken to Norman Baker before the event. He repeated the party line that ‘there may be a benefit in taking our time to get to a better place in the EU process’ – i.e. waiting until there was further data available to make the FQD more comprehensive. Many people in the room pointed out, in different ways, that this approach of ‘it can’t be done just yet’ was leading to delays, stalemate, and playing right into the hands of Canada and the tar sands industry. If the FQD doesn’t pass soon, there will be a change in EU Parliament and Commission, and the whole process is at risk of collapse. Meanwhile in North America, a number of proposed pipelines, such as Keystone XL and Energy East, are already laying the infrastructure for the fuel to start flowing to the EU.

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George closed the event by noting that, to him, the FQD seemed perfect, because there’s no escaping that tar sands are dirtier than conventional oil and will lead to exponential CO2 emissions. He urged the UK to do the right thing. Whether his message got through to Norman Baker and Simon Hughes remains to be seen.

It’s clear that we need to increase the pressure on the government to treat this issue with more urgency. One thing you can do is email your MP and ask them to sign an Early Day Motion on the FQD.