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Power, politics and the Fuel Quality Directive

Possibly European fuel quality standards are the last thing on your mind. I don’t blame you if that’s the case. This is budget week after all. By many accounts the federal Conservatives will table a controversial and painful budget, booby-trapped with Republican-style cuts to environmental protections and peppered with unrelated policy changes the government would like to shield from the usual legislative scrutiny.

Actually, if I can coax you to think about EU fuel standards, there is a connection there to this budget, or at least the general attitude behind it. It’s a connection a delegation of civil society and Indigenous representatives from Canada has been making in meetings this week in Europe, which ended today in Berlin. (Read background materials and blogs about the tour here.) We wanted to explain what Canadian climate policy (or lack of it) looks like from the perspective of anyone not bound by government censorship rules or diplomatic responsibility to toe the dirty line.

So what did we achieve and learn? At the most basic level, we confirmed what we knew going in: that everyone here believes in the goal of the EU Fuel Quality Directive to reduce carbon emissions from transport fuel by six per cent by 2020 and many are fighting to protect it. Everyone, that is, except the oil industry-BP, Total, Shell, etc-and its puppets in the Alberta and federal governments who don’t think it’s fair that the FQD lists Oil Sands as being more carbon intensive (more polluting) than conventional crude oil. They are more polluting – by about 23 per cent – which doesn’t even get into the social, health and human rights impacts on nearby and downstream communities.

Unfortunately, a private-public partnership between Big Oil and Canadian officials has confused the issue in Europe to the point that it’s not clear the FQD in its current form might not survive a June vote by EU environment ministers. It’s not clear what kind of amendments to the policy (if any) might be proposed by the European Commission before then. It’s not clear whether the same countries who abstained during a February vote on the FQD (including France, the Netherlands, Britain and Germany, where we focused our tour) will do so again in June. It’s not even clear that vote will take place at all or be postponed to August and possibly beyond.

What is clear, having spent a week speaking to European climate and transportation officials, is that the anti-FQD campaign is having a limited impact. Trade and economic ministries at the member state and European level are playing the blocking role. They talk about the administrative burden to oil companies, or the competitiveness of German refineries, or threats to Europe’s energy security. These are unsubstantiated concerns from what we could gather; talking points masking an essentially political discussion behind the scenes.

England, for example, has a semi-special relationship with Canada. Prime Minister Harper and British PM David Cameron stand side by side in the Commonwealth, NATO and the “coalition of the willing on free trade.” So if Canada says the FQD is a discriminatory trade barrier, that’s what Britain is going to say (even if the Canadian case is weak, and that at the end of the day Britain will vote in favour of the FQD or abstain, as one meeting suggested they could). The French abstention from February could become a yes vote under a new Socialist presidency, though the influence of energy giant Total crosses party lines.

It was important that our delegation ended in Germany. The country led Europe in renewable energy production to the point where the government is now reducing subsidies for solar power. Chancellor Angela Merkel promised after the Fukushima disaster to phase out nuclear power. And last year a Conservative member of parliament stood in the legislature to denounce Canada for leaving the Kyoto Protocol.

We met with that member yesterday and then with representatives from several parties again this morning, as well as with foreign affairs and environment ministry officials last week. There is German investment in the tar sands and German equipment helping produce it. But there is also a tendency here to support strong EU-level climate measures.

A recent Green party motion asking Germany to support the FQD in its present form almost passed to the surprise of Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and other groups here supporting it and the policy. The Social Democrats are planning to try again with a new motion soon. Canada’s ambassador has come under direct attack in the media here for his lobbying of Germany government officials. Though Germany’s economics and technology department refused to meet our delegation, we were able to get the minister a petition from European and Canadian organizations asking them to stop blocking and start vocally supporting the Fuel Quality Directive.

Germany’s support would go a long way. As a powerful member of the EU, a promise to vote yes could sway other countries from abstaining next time around. We were told things are still in play and anything’s possible. We were also told, not just in Germany but at every step, that public support will be crucial. If the FQD remains invisible it remains vulnerable to monkeywrenching from the oil industry with Canadian backup.

So we have some thinking to do in Canada on how to make that happen. The issue received fleeting attention in the news in February but in a very polarized way — you are either with the Fuel Quality Directive or with the “Canadian Economy”. This was standard operating procedure for the current Harper government. A divide-and-conquer strategy that says anyone who disagrees with tar sands expansion is an “adversary” of the government, as leaked documents call Indigenous peoples, or “issue-based terrorists” or “enemies of the people of Canada” or “radicals.”

One of the reasons we came to Europe was to prove we are none of these things; that we are speaking to Europeans because we have hit a brick wall in Canada, where the only climate policy is a policy of undermining climate policies abroad. The FQD might not be the most important climate fight over the coming months but it will be important. The Canada-Big Oil campaign has forced the issue out of hiding, annoying friends of Canada as much as foes of the tarsands.