Two thirds of European oil refineries ready for tar sands imports

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Oil sands in Alberta Canada

More than two thirds of European oil refineries are now equipped to process tar sands, research has found, raising fears the EU is ready to welcome a flood of imports of one of the most environmentally devastating fuels in production.

In less than a week world leaders will meet in Paris at the UN Climate Change Conference to try and strike a deal to cap global warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

On 6 November, US President Barack Obama killed off the Keystone XL pipeline that would have carried Canadian tar sands oil across the US, citing the projects impact on climate change. Tar sands oil produces three to four times more global-warming emissions when extracted and refined than conventional crude oil.

New research carried out by petroleum refining consultants MathPro found 71 of Europe’s 95 refineries (the EU, and Norway and Switzerland) can now handle heavy or pre-processed crude from tar sands oil.

The study, commissioned by Transport & Environment and Friends of the Earth Europe, suggests the industry is preparing itself for imports by ensuring it has the necessary equipment.

Tar sands oil is not produced in Europe, but it is in countries such as Canada, and Venezuela. The US refines and exports Canada’s tar sands petroleum to Europe, blended with domestic fuel in its export barrels.

“Days before the opening of global climate negotiations in Paris, it is clear that Europe has the capability to process these climate-killing fuels while the EU does nothing to stop them entering Europe,” said Laura Buffet, fuels policy officer at Transport & Environment, said.

Unrestricted tar sands imports to Europe would have the same climate impact as having an extra six million cars on the road, a report last year found.

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Missed opportunity

European Union policymakers missed an opportunity to discourage tar sands imports by penalising their use in road transport fuels.

In October 2014, the European Commission scrapped a mandatory requirement in its draft Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) to label tar sands oil as highly polluting.

The FQD is important to promote cleaner transport fuels and is part of the EU’s push to cut carbon emissions by 20% by 2020. Transport is responsible for 31% of the EU’s total CO2 emissions.

The climbdown came after years of industry opposition and drew accusations that the weakening of the rules was linked to talks over the EU-Canada free trade deal CETA, and its EU-US equivalent, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Efforts to penalise tar sands oil from Canada were narrowly defeated by the European Parliament in December last year. Instead, oil from tar sands was given the same emission value as conventional petrol or diesel, meaning its higher actual greenhouse gas emissions will not be accounted for. 

Colin Roche, extractive industries campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, said, "Tar sands are deadly for the climate, yet the EU's energy policy is giving a lifeline to this dangerous industry."

The first major tar sands oil shipment from Canada arrived in Bilbao, Spain, in June 2014. The shipment by Spanish company Repsol was greeted by protests.

US President Obama rejects Keystone XL pipeline project

President Obama rejects Keystone XL pipeline project - PBS NewsHour

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