Tar sands likened to clubbing baby seals?

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The pro-industry paper, The Calgary Herald, commentates on the latest Alberta lobbyists’ trip to Europe, presenting their task as a pretty difficult one.

“Considering the oilsands’ reputation as the source of ‘dirty oil’, McQueen and Dallas might as well be going to Europe to defend the clubbing of baby seals…”

“They might want to consider packing mountaineering equipment, considering how their trip is going to be something of an uphill climb.”

Let’s hope the Calgary Herald is right in thinking Europe will stand strong against the tar sands!

By Graham Thomson, Calgary Herald September 30, 2013
Environment Minister Diana McQueen and International Relations Minister Cal Dallas are making separate trips to Europe this week.

Among McQueen’s destinations: Paris, Athens and Stockholm. Among Dallas’s destinations: Hungary, Romania and Latvia.

One destination they have in common: the lion’s den.

McQueen and Dallas are heading to Europe to defend greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s oilsands industry at the very moment European politicians, news media and scientists are reacting to the latest report on global warming from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Here in a nutshell are the IPCC’s findings: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal. … The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”

And here is the IPCC’s warning about those emissions: “Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.”

The latest IPCC report is dramatically reinforcing the argument that countries worldwide have to take action to reduce their emissions.

The European Union wants to be seen as a leader on that front. And it is into this arena that McQueen and Dallas are travelling.

Considering the oilsands’ reputation as the source of “dirty oil,” McQueen and Dallas might as well be going to Europe to defend the clubbing of baby seals.

But, politically speaking, they have no choice. At stake is Alberta’s plans to expand the exploitation of the oilsands.

As a way of reducing emissions worldwide, the European Union is considering implementing what’s called a Fuel Quality Directive that would penalize the importation of fuel deemed to have a relatively high carbon footprint.

One of its main targets: Alberta’s oilsands.

We don’t currently export oilsands oil to Europe, but that will change if the West-East pipeline goes ahead and we start to ship bitumen for upgrading to New Brunswick and then export to, among other places, Europe.

The EU considers the extraction of the oilsands to have a carbon footprint about 20 per cent higher than the extraction of oil from conventional sources.

That might be an exaggerated number. Other sources peg the intensity of the oilsands industry to be about 10 per cent higher.

Nonetheless, the problem for the oilsands is that it is indeed “dirtier” than many conventional sources and its reputation is made even dirtier by comments from environmental celebrities such as Robert Redford and Neil Young who, respectively, blame the oilsands for “wreaking havoc” with the environment and compare Fort McMurray to Hiroshima.

Redford and Young are guilty of gross hyperbole. The greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide is the burning of coal, and we collectively in Canada spew more emissions by driving our cars and trucks each year than are released by the oilsands. But the oilsands are the fastest-growing source of emissions in Canada, and the Alberta government has no plans to reduce the province’s overall emissions before 2020 (and even meeting that goal is an open question).

Dallas and McQueen do not have an easy sales job.

They say they didn’t deliberately time their visit to coincide with the release of the IPCC report; they were more interested in the Fuel Quality Directive debate that is expected to wrap up this fall. But Dallas says he’s happy to use the IPCC report as a conversation piece to demonstrate that not only does Alberta take climate change seriously, but that the oilsands industry has taken great strides to reduce the intensity of its greenhouse gas emissions in recent years.

His defence of the oilsands also includes an offence, too. He’s taking a slap at other sources of fossil fuels imported to the EU, notably oil from Nigeria and the former Soviet bloc countries, that have high levels of unreported emissions from venting and flaring.

“Sixty per cent of that crude arriving in the EU doesn’t have any emission reporting attached to it whatsoever,” says Dallas, who argues Alberta is therefore a victim of its own honesty by being so open about its relatively high emissions.

Alberta is saying its oil is cleaner than you think and, by the way, the other guys’ oil is dirtier than you thought.

McQueen and Dallas might be travelling light for their whirlwind tour of Europe, but when it comes to Alberta’s environmental reputation, they have more baggage than Air Canada’s lost and found.

They might want to consider packing mountaineering equipment, considering how their trip is going to be something of an uphill climb.

Graham Thomson is an Edmonton Journal columnist.