The lowdown on dirty tar sands diplomacy

Canada and Shell are strangling climate action! Photo by Amy Scaife

The Canadian Government and the oil industry are working together to promote the tar sands industry and weaken climate legislation throughout the world. They are currently focusing on plugging their polluting product in Europe. Most of these dodgy dealings go on behind closed doors, but more and more information has come to light recently about the cosy relationships between politicians and the oil giants. Here’s a summary of what we know so far about this dirty diplomacy. And don’t worry, we’ll keep digging!

How industry and government are pushing tar sands on the world

In recent years the tar sands industry (they call themselves ‘oil sands’ – as if that sounded any cleaner!) has attracted growing public awareness, concern and resistance, especially outside Canada. In late 2009, anticipating that Europe might be a key site of opposition and potential embarrassment, the Canadian government set up what it called the “Pan-European Oil Sands Team”. Its mission? “To reframe the European debate on oil sands in a manner that protects and advances Canadian interests related to the oil sands…in Europe”. Members come from the Canadian and Alberta governments, major oil companies – including Shell, BP, Statoil and Total, the Royal Bank of Scotland, industry lobby groups and embassies in London, Paris, Berlin, The Hague, Oslo, Brussels and Canada.

The existence and activities of the group and its members remain highly secretive. From what little information has been obtained through Freedom of Information requests the tar sands pushers appear to be a conspiring bunch using both sweet talk and threats to promote the toxic industry. A central theme is their drive to push EU member states – particularly the UK and the Netherlands, home of BP and Shell – to vote against the inclusion of tar sands in the EU Fuel Quality Directive (FQD). This proposed EU legislation, which to be approved needs a critical level of support from EU member states, is seen as a real threat to the tar sands industry. Not only would the FQD disincentivise tar sands imports to Europe, it could set a precedent for similar legislation elsewhere in the world, blocking off new markets and curbing the unfettered expansion of the industry.

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Canadian government

In September 2011 Ottawa was ‘delighted’ to host British Prime Minister David Cameron for a visit and thanked him for the UK’s efforts to amend the FQD in Canada’s favour. In 2011 the Canadian government also organised a ‘secret strategy retreat’ in London for government and oil industry representatives to discuss the “critical” issue of winning the tar sands argument in the EU, to “mitigate the impact on the Canadian brand” and to protect the “huge investments from the likes of Shell, BP, Total and Statoil”.

“Oil Orgy” invades Energy Summit from You and I Films on Vimeo.

Complementing the carrot tactic has been the stick. In October 2011 the Canadian Natural Resources minister, Joe Oliver, publicly vowed to ‘fight’ the FQD. In private correspondence to the EU energy Commissioner Oliver claimed that “Canada will not hesitate to defend its interests”, threatening a World Trade Organisation challenge if a compromise was not reached on the FQD.

BP and Shell

BP and Shell play a huge role in promoting the tar sands industry in the UK. In June 2011 and June 2012, in what has been described as the“Shell schmoozathon”, Shell gave 30-40 senior Whitehall officials exclusive “training courses” to promote the company’s views on energy, tar sands and the FQD. The content of the presentations is barely known – they were released but redacted (blacked-out) to the point of comedy.

Recently released documents reveal Business Secretary Vince Cable has been given the nauseating role of ‘contact minister for Shell’. In the same letter, Vince Cable is asked by Shell to not only change the position of the UK on the FQD, but to “encourage other [member states] in the same direction”. BP’s Vice President Peter Mather was also found to have ‘bent the ear’ of Transport Minister Norman Baker on the FQD.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP)

The Canadian government’s position on tar sands has been shaped by industry lobby group the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). CAPP calls itself the “voice” of the upstream oil industry and all major oil companies operating in the tar sands, including BP and Shell, are members. The Harper government’s approach to the FQD – “everyone in same basket, at same level, until they prove otherwise” – was found to have been crafted in consultation with CAPP. CAPP described the approach as “an elegant solution that is worth pursuing.”

Why we shouldn’t we trust the oil industry or the Canadian government

None of these secret meetings, strategy retreats, or ‘schmoozathons’ would cause concern if they were about permaculture or second-hand books. But the tar sands are one of the biggest threats our climate faces, and the people pushing it have questionable track records and dangerous agendas.

The Canadian government

Canada’s environmental regulation is in a dire state. C38 – dubbed the “Environmental Destruction Act” – was a recent measure introduced that reversed decades of Canadian environmental legislation. This came not long after Canada pulled out of Kyoto as it “did not represent the way forward for Canada or the world” according to Environment Minister Peter Kent.

Tar sands are Canada’s fastest growing source of GHG emissions – not only because the industry is expanding, but because carbon-intensity per barrel is increasing. Kent has claimed that the government is “on target” to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by the year 2020. But research shows that meeting these targets would require a tenfold increase in the GHG reduction effort made by the Harper government since it took office in 2006. Alberta’s climate targets rely almost entirely on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which is not likely to result in significant emissions reductions in the tar sands for at least the next two decades .

The lack of debate within the Canadian government over tar sands development is astonishing. In January 2011 Peter Kent proclaimed the tar sands were “absolutely ethical” and lamented its “bad rap”. In an aggressive attempt to discredit Canada’s environmental movement, Kent labelled tar sands pipeline opponents “treacherous”, while Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has claimed environmental and other “radical groups” are trying “to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda”.

The Canadian government has continued to ignore First Nations’ concerns and, despite splashing out on expensive measures designed to improve consultation with First Nations, still does not allow First Nations the fundamental right to say ‘no’ to developments on their land. Vague attempts at monitoring pollution in the Athabasca River are also seen as too little, too late, as many communities living downstream from the tar sands continue to suffer detrimental health impacts caused by polluted water. According to David Schindler, one of the scientists whose work was instrumental in making the case for better monitoring, the Harper government has pared back numerous regulations to speed the way for industrial development, and “can’t be trusted”.


Shell is one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies, and has been the topic of much controversy over its summer 2012 drilling in the Arctic. Shell is also one of the largest operators in the tar sands and is determined to double its production with two new proposed mines, despite a legal challenge from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation which is situated downstream from the developments.


BP has no qualms about climate change. It proudly proclaims that fossil fuels will continue to form the majority of our energy supply for decades, thereby modelling its future business plans on a scenario of a six-degree temperature rise – which would make our planet unrecognisable. BP is now plunging ahead with its first tar sands project, actively seeking out more, and exploring drilling in the Arctic, despite having failed to adequately compensate the thousands of victims of the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010.