Chris Davies MEP writes… Slipping deeper into the tar sands

Last week we published Liberal Democrat minister Norman Baker’s defence of his approach to the tar sands issue. Here Chris Davies MEP explains his view…

The weak and obfuscating position on tar sands being taken by the Coalition Government is an embarrassment to every Liberal Democrat who wants to believe that having our representatives in office will advance the environmental agenda.  It may stem from nothing more than Whitehall’s traditional “Brits know better than Brussels” arrogance, but it is wrong-headed nonetheless.

The EU’s Fuel Quality Directive encourages oil producers the world over to lower the carbon intensity of their products in order to export to Europe. It is likely to result in reduced gas flaring, it could promote carbon capture at coal-to-liquid facilities, and it may play a small part in stimulating improvements in the efficiency of tar sands processing.

Production of oil from tar sands results in the emission of more greenhouse gases than from most traditional means of obtaining the fuel. This is a simple fact, and no amount of lobbying by advocates for Canadian tar sands to persuade EU legislators that black is white can change it

Connie Hedegaard, the Climate Action Commissioner, has my full support for the position she is taking.  She is proposing that values be attached to different fuels that reflect the additional contribution they may make to greenhouse gas emissions. There is no attempt to single out tar sands from Canada, which would be illegal as well as politically inappropriate, and some of us are getting tired of hearing the false claims that it does.

Any supplier of fuels can apply for a revised carbon value if they can demonstrate that their processes have improved. Canada says it is working to lower the emissions associated with oil derived from tar sands, and by so doing maybe they will gain an advantage over competitors. Good, this is the object of the legislation.

The oil industry has been claiming it would be costly and difficult to track where oil comes from. We can trace eggs back to the farm from whence they came but one of the richest and most technologically advanced industries can’t keep track of the origin of its products? It is not a convincing argument.

World demand for oil continues to increase but it becomes harder to obtain. Better management and utilisation of the Earth’s resources is rapidly moving up Europe’s list of priorities. This is precisely the time to ensure that the most efficient extraction and production methods are rewarded.

In the UK it has been decreed that matters pertaining to the Fuel Quality Directive shall be dealt with by the Department for Transport.  I would like to believe that if the British position was instead being articulated by the Department for Energy and Climate Change it would not be as it is.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David Allen 6th Dec '11 - 6:12pm

    “Ministers in Government. Making diffcult decisions every day. And one of our MEPs thinks that a public forum is the right way to conduct a discussion with him…”

    Sounds like typical Tory or Labour harrumphing to me. All this secrecy will be a thing of the past once that great day dawns when the Lib Dems break through into power, believe me!

    Norman Baker wrote:

    “I want a system brought in as early as possible that covers all crude sources. I have asked the pressure groups for their views on how that might be achieved. So far the only response I have met is silence. It seems the policy they want is to clobber the Canadians and to hell with the rest. ”

    Sorry, I know Norman has a great past record as an environmental campaigner, but this is clearly misleading stuff. The environmentalists have not been “silent”. They have been shouting about the need to do something quickly. Rightly or wrongly, they have been arguing that the UK proposal to seek new and better rules is only going to cause delay and play into the hands of the polluters. Norman Baker needs to tackle that argument, not sidestep it.

  • Alex Macfie 6th Dec '11 - 7:38pm

    @Simon: I do not know much about this issue. However, I absolutely defend the right of our MEPs to disagree publicly with our government ministers. Lib Dem MEPs are not part of the UK government; they (as Chris noted in May 2010 in his “Coalition-Free Zone” bulletin) belong to a separate institution whose role includes scrutiny of the national governments as represented in the European Council. If our MEPs were not sometimes disagreeing with UK government ministers, even those from our party, I would say that they were not doing their jobs.
    It’s actually quite common for politicians from the same party in different tiers of government to openly disagree with each other. To take one example, Mayor Boris has criticised (Tory-run) Westminster Council over its proposed car parking charges; so have Tory government ministers. Boris has from time to time openly disagreed with the national government. Tory MEPs openly defied their national party leadership on climate change policy. Whatever you think of their views, this is normal politics. I would not want to be in a party where all our lawmakers, from MEP to MP to AM to Councillor, are expected to follow a script written by central party HQ at all times.

  • Richard Marbrow 6th Dec '11 - 8:40pm

    @ Simon McGrath, Norman made a comment on EU legislation that Chris helped to write. Have you considered that Chris is setting the record straight as opposed to starting an attack? Also you just accused the ALDE spokesman on the Environment of spreading scare stories. Can’t agree with you on that as I know he knows more about this subject than you do. Also I have not seen MPs refrain from attacking MEP policy in the past and they have been maing decisions in a position of power since 1999. Do you belong to the group of people that believe that only Westminster matters at all?

    @Simon Shaw. Carbon intensity includes the carbon cost of production and they are most definitely NOT a tiny part of the carbon intensity of tar sands. The energy required to harvest oil from tar sands is astronomically high so statement 1 refers to this as part of the carbon intensity.

  • Yes we should be able to disagree publcly, but please don’t aid our enemies. Norman Baker has come under sustained attack, a wealthy private business has taken it upon itself to spend thousands of pounds to smear Norman Baker; distributing a glossy leaflet to every house in his constituency, and erecting huge huge poster boards attacking him in their shops. The content iof the leaflet would shame a Murdoch tabloid .
    Norman was campaigning on climate change when most people had never heard of it and those who had denied it existed. He has spent his political life arguing for, and winning, measures to protect the environment and bring about a more sustainable future. Norman has consistently supported local environmental issues. He’s been an advocate for Transition Town Lewes, for climate activists, he’s attended climate camps and called for judiciary reviews. He’s is an outstanding MP and a thoroughly decent person.

  • This is grandstanding. Canada’s exports all go to the US anyway, and if they develop a new market it will be China.

    And why is it that all these people who condemn the tar sands never say anything about coal mining?

  • Simon McGrath 6th Dec '11 - 9:37pm

    @Alex “Lib Dem MEPs are not part of the UK government; they (as Chris noted in May 2010 in his “Coalition-Free Zone” bulletin) belong to a separate institution whose role includes scrutiny of the national governments as represented in the European Council.”

    I completely disagree. The party voted overwhelmingly for the Coalition and our MEPs should be supporting it. That does not mean that they ( or our backbench) MPs should agree with everything the Coalition does. But in this case we have a Lib Dem Minister who has already explained why he is taking the position he is. If Chris has some concerns he should be raising them in private.

  • Alex Macfie 6th Dec '11 - 10:09pm

    @Simon: the party voted for a Coalition for the UK government, seated at Westminster, necessecitated by the electoral arithmetic resulting from the national parliamentary election. I don’t think for a moment that most people in that hall at the NEC thought the agreement ought to be binding on anyone other than Westminster parliamentarians and government minsters. I find such a thought rather scary; it is difficult to see how, or why, our MEPs could or should come to any sort of agreement with Tory MEPs, much less the nutcases they seem to hang around with nowadays. And as @Richard notes, Norman was commenting on a piece of EU legislation; Chris has at least as much right to comment publicly on it as Norman does. And in general, I do not agree with your view that our MEPs ought to be bound by the whips’ offices at Westminster; this would make the European Parliament subordinate to national governments, utterly undermining its role, as a democraticaly elected body, in scrutinising the actions these very governments take.

  • “I completely disagree. The party voted overwhelmingly for the Coalition and our MEPs should be supporting it.”

    What categoric cast iron support of any coalition policy without any reservation?

    I must have missed that line of the motion.

  • @Simon, approx 20% of the energy in the tar sands is consumed during extraction and processing. That’s not to mention the vast quantity of water that gets consumed and polluted dealing with tar sands. It’s 2-4 times worse than conventional crude in terms of energy cost to produce. It’s dirty on every level. AIUI it doesn’t end up here in the UK anyway so I’m not sure what impact our rules would have.

  • Richard Marbrow 7th Dec '11 - 10:30am

    @ Simon Shaw. I think Alistair has answered your question there. As you can see the production costs in terms of energy and environmental damage are significant.

    @Alistair. There is a danger that they may become economic within the EU if the real environmental costs are not assessed

    @Simon McGrath. Your suggestion would require us to breach our own Party constitution, the MEPs to breach both the Parliament’s code of conduct and the TEU and apart from all that is utter, utter tosh. Chris is a supporter of the coalition and has said so many times. That does not mean slavish obedience to Ministers commenting on EU law when the Party in the European Parliament has already taken a different line. Maybe your criticism would be better directed towards Norman’s article for not supporting the Liberal Democrats in the European parliament?

  • Richard Marbrow 7th Dec '11 - 11:11am
  • Hats off to Chris Davies, as a Lib Dem voter I expect all elected reps to stand up for the environment and have some integrity in how they conduct themselves. Whilst Norman Baker has a great track record on the environment his parroting of the Canadian and oil lobby’s myths about tar sands, and his disigenuous attempts to stall the Directive and exempt tar sands fuels (the world’s most climate polluting transport fuel – 3 times the production emissions and 23% more lifecycle emissions than conventional crude) is an absolute shocker and difficult to fathom from an ‘environmentalist’. Is he being leaned on? He claims not. Does power corrupt? Maybe. Chris Davies and other Lib Dem MEPs have been instrumental in ensuring tar sands are included in the EU proposals despite one of the largest lobbies of the EU ever seen, and well done to them for that, it should in part be considered a Lib Dem victory, but it is being put at risk by a Lib Dem Minister! Norman has had the facts of the matter explained to him repeatedly by NGOs and no doubt MEPs but he just ignores and continues to regurgitate the pro tar sands propaganda. Unfortunately it
    has come to very public criticism, and unfortunately it is warranted. Norman needs to be reminded of the values he is supposed to represent.

  • @ad – And why is it that all these people who condemn the tar sands never say anything about coal mining?

    Maybe because Tar sands is dirtier than the dirtiest coal.

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