Norman Baker responds to tar sands campaigns

Over the last week or so, visitors to the Lib Dem Voice may have seen articles purporting to outline my position, and that of the government’s, on the EU Fuel Quality Directive and the treatment of tar sands within it.  These articles have been misleading to say the least.  We in the Lib Dems have a proud history of fighting climate change and campaigning for environmental causes.  This is no different in the coalition and no different to the approach I am taking on the Directive.  I wanted to take this opportunity therefore to provide some facts which will, I hope, alleviate concerns that some may have, and also clarify my position on this.

I first got into politics because of my concerns about the way in which the environment was being treated. My first campaign ever, in 1987, was about pesticide misuse. I was campaigning on climate change when most people had never heard of it and those who had denied it existed.  I have spent my political life arguing for, and winning, measures to protect the environment and bring about a more sustainable future. Only this week, I have succeeded, to take just two examples, in persuading the government to cut rail fares by 2%, and to allocate another £20m for new green buses.

It may be helpful if I provide some background to the Directive.  The EU Fuel Quality Directive requires that fuel suppliers reduce the greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy (“GHG intensity”) by 6 per cent by 2020. The European Commission, with the engagement of member states, is currently assessing options for the accounting of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels under this.

The articles have reported that I am lobbying against the Directive.  This is categorically incorrect. First, it is not a question of lobbying for or against the Fuel Quality Directive. It already exists, and I support it. What is at issue is what carbon values the Directive gives to different sources of fuel or feedstocks as they are known. Some say they have grave concerns about the highly polluting nature of Canadian tar sands. So do I. But unlike them, I am also concerned about other highly polluting crudes, such as those from Nigeria, Angola and Venezuela.  I think Lib Dems would agree that we should not take a backwards step on tackling these other highly polluting crudes.

Some ‘green’ campaigners want a specific value to Canadian tar sands but only a general default single value to all conventional crudes, despite the fact that the greenhouse gas impacts vary enormously across conventional crudes. Yet there is at present virtually no fuel derived from tar sands in Europe, and they would be in effect ignoring probably 99% of the fossil fuels we use.  I want to use the Fuel Quality Directive to drive down the use of all heavy crudes, not just one source. I simply cannot understand why some environmentalists seem completely uninterested in conventional crudes.

But it is because I am, that I persuaded the British government to put to our EU partners a system whereby all fossil fuel sources were placed in either a high, medium or low band, with specific values being advocated as and when the detailed information became available. Under my scenario, such a value would be given to Canadian tar sands right away but within this banding arrangement that captured all other fossil fuel sources from day one.

The articles have suggested that the government is “attempting to kill this legislation by delaying it for years”. Yet my officials at the Department for Transport advise me that a banding system could be up and running within six months to a year. By contrast, if the EU fails to put a system in place now to cover all crudes, it is unlikely that the matter will be revisited for years, and all we will have is a specific value for one source that at the moment barely exists, as far as Europe is concerned.

Incidentally, the only reason we have a specific value for Canadian tar sands is because the Canadians keep proper records in an open way that allows that figure to be calculated. Such transparency is a positive thing and we should not be encouraging secrecy amongst those heavy polluters who would have no incentive whatsoever to produce accurate data under their preferred approach.

So 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. What kind of an environmental policy is that?

The reports have also suggested that I am “a good man being forced to tow the Conservative party line.” This appears to be based on the fact (which I found out from a pressure group) that David Cameron has recently met the Canadian Prime Minister. This explanation was then given oxygen by the Guardian, which listed the meetings ministers, including me, have had with oil companies.  Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. What the Guardian did not list, of course, were all the meetings, far more numerous in number, that I have had with the green pressure groups.

And let me make this absolutely clear. I have not had any contact, or any pressure on me, from the Prime Minister or anyone else at No10 about this issue. Nor has any other Tory, bar the then Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, even discussed the matter with me.

The position now is that discussions are ongoing within the EU on the best approach to the measuring and treatment of fossil fuels within the Fuel Quality Directive. Countries like the Netherlands have made their own creative suggestions. My aim throughout has been, and is now, to use those discussions to get the best deal possible for the environment.  I am not going to be blown off course for the sake of an easy life by these inaccurate campaigns, and neither should the Lib Dem party.

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  • Martin Veart 2nd Dec '11 - 9:10am

    As a worker in the oil and gas industry, I applaud your commonsense approach to fossil fuels. You are quite right, some oils are heavier than others and thus require more processing and therefore more energy to do so. Your suggestion that crude oil should be banded (I would guess by their API rating?) is therefore one that should be supported.

  • Sid Cumberland 2nd Dec '11 - 9:30am

    Thanks for that, Norman. All clear now!

  • I think the Guardian’s incentive to whip up misleading controversy is greater than that for Norman to sell out to Canadian oil, and I also suspect Norman knows a great deal more about this than most.

    But ultimately we just need to wait and see what happens. Norman can and will be judged by what the situation is in a year and in 3 years. Will it be better, worse or the same as what the EU proposals currently envision? Hopefully even better given what he’s said here.

    Incidentally, I’m always grateful to see ministers explaining to LDV readers what they’ve been doing. Thanks!

  • Do you not get a right of reply in the Guardian? They gave one to Branson after a hatchet job, mind you he does have advertising dollars to spend.

  • ed iglehart 2nd Dec '11 - 10:45am

    Thanks for the clarification. Personally, I find the tar sands development to be symptomatic and illustrative of the lengths to which we are prepared to go to feed our addiction to ever-increasing doses of extrametabolic energy. It’s an addiction likely to prove fatal.

    P.S. a note on ‘style’:
    “far more numerous in number, ”

  • Well said response! Thank you for taking the time to explain.

  • David Allen 2nd Dec '11 - 1:58pm

    All this sounds very reasonable. The question which just worries me a little, is, if it’s so fair and reasonable, why is it that “I have asked the pressure groups for their views … (and) …the only response I have met is silence.”? What might motivate Greenpeace and their allies to keep “silent”?

  • You’re doing a fantastic job in Government, Norman, making us very proud. I’m very pleased you’re not getting knocked off course by some cheap hatchet job and the misdirected naivety of these so called environmental campaigners.

    Keep up the great work.

  • What we’re being asked to believe is that Norman, having spent all this time getting into Government makes his major act one which gives legislative breaks to polluting oil companies.

    That’s somewhat hard to believe.

    I look around quite a few ministers who are delivering on important things which they’ve believed in for a long time (Andrew Stunell on general power of competence for local government would be another) – the issue is do enough people care about such things to see them as major wins for us come 2015?

  • Occupy Lush I say…

  • David Allen 3rd Dec '11 - 12:20am

    OK Bob, I’m happy to believe that some “environmental” groups are nutty, stupid or biased. But, all of them?

  • David Rogers 3rd Dec '11 - 1:39pm

    As someone who remembers Norman’s 1987 pesticide campaign – and all the other campaigning leading up to Liberal Democrats taking control of Lewes DC in 1991 – I can vouch for his long-term commitment to promoting strong environmental measures. Not least amongst these has been his championing of ‘green’ taxes, from a time when, as with climate change, most people had never heard of them.
    So I have no hesitation in supporting his explanation of this current issue, and welcoming the general tone of most of the comments already made. Ed Iglehart’s grammatical point made me smile too!

  • Nigel Quinton 5th Dec '11 - 4:45pm

    Well said Norman.

    It may sound churlish but it would be good to hear similarly reasoned and passionate communications from some of your fellow Lib Dem ministers (particularly the one in the Treasury!!)

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