I am simultaneously a resident of Alberta, home of the horrible tar-sands, and a member of Lewes Liberal Democrats, who has campaigned for Norman Baker. So, I consider that I’m duty bound to get my head round the barney between Norman and environmentalists, on whether the UK is giving unreasonable support to Canada on implementation of the EU FQD.
The line-up of Norman’s critics appears formidable. There is Greenpeace, The Co-operative Bank, Bill McKibbon, Zac Goldsmith, Damian Carrington and, most worryingly, Chris Davies MEP. To that you can add the gamut of Canadian environmental groups and campaigning journalists.
Their criticisms of the Government’s stance on the FQD are multiple.
The first charge is that the British Government has has “secret meetings” with the Canadians. In his blog on 27th November, Damian Carrington alleged that there had been 15 such ”high level” meetings since September. The document on which this allegation was based can be downloaded from this article in the Canadian online paper The Tyee.
The first point is that there was no secret; there was no leak. The document was obtained by a freedom of information request, by FoE and the Co-op Bank. Secondly, 15 meetings over two months appears a lot, until you see that half of them took place in Canada, and include David Cameron’s visit and meeting with Stephen Harper. It is common knowledge that the Canadians have been lobbying hard on this issue, and the British High Commissioner in Canada can hardly refuse to listen, and nor can Lord Howell as Foreign and Commonwealth Minister. It was inevitable that Canada would concentrate its lobbying efforts on the UK, the EU country with which it has the closest relationship. The 15 meetings also have to be put into the context of the extraordinary energy Canada puts in to lobbying for the tar sands. For example EurActiv reports that between September 2009 and July 2011, Canadian government and oil industry representatives organised more than 110 lobby events in Brussels – over one per week – to promote the tar sands industry.
My conclusion is that the “secret meetings” allegation doesn’t amount to more than an attempt to whip up conspiracy paranoia. An interesting detail of the document is that no Canadian politician or diplomat appears to have had access to either Norman Baker or Chris Huhne. When Joe Oliver, Canada’s minister of natural resources, visited London, he only got to see Charles Hendry. If the UK was really in cahoots with Canada on the FQD, you would have expected Norman, as the Minister responsible, to have met with the Canadian High Commissioner at least once.
The important question is whether the UK Government is actually supporting Canada’s attempt to get round the FQD. This allegation is more substantial, but the issue is complicated. In his article in Lib-Dem Voice, Norman Baker stated his position:
“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.”
The green campaigners, for their part, have been rather vague about what they think the UK is doing to promote Canada’s interests, but I can see three reasons why they might be suspicious of the UK’s position.
The first is delay. Norman Baker says that assigning a value to the heavy conventional crudes could take six months or a year, and he points out, quite correctly, that a negligible amount of Canadian oil is getting into the European supply at the moment, so such a short delay can’t matter. The campaigners whose mouthpiece is Damian Carrington, wedded to their conspiracy theory, think that it is a deliberate delaying tactic that would put off implementation indefinitely. Since they don’t put forward any evidence for why that would happen, it is impossible to judge whether their fears are justified.
The second is Dr James Hansen’s influential view that we can use all the conventional crude oil that is left and still avoid dangerous climate change, as long as we leave the unconventional crudes in the ground, and stop using coal. From that perspective, there is less to be gained from attaching a value to heavy conventional crudes, because we are going to be using them anyway, which may account for the environmental groups’ lack of interest in what Norman Baker is proposing.
Thirdly, there is the wording of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office document, which refers to the UK position as a “compromise”, suggesting that the UK is in fact trying to meet Canada halfway. However, the document also makes clear that the Canadians themselves see no advantage in what the UK is proposing, and even object on the grounds that they would be penalised for keeping good records. I think one has to take some account of the fact that diplomacy involves using diplomatic language.
So, overall, I think the criticisms of the UK position, and Norman Baker, in relation to the FQD, lack substance.
However, that doesn’t mean I’m happy with the UK’s position on the tarsands. There is the matter of Lord Sassoon’s visit to Calgary and the upgrading of the consulate in Calgary to look after UK interests. The UK government may not be able to stop British companies such as the HSBC investing in the tar-sands, but it doesn’t have to help them. I’d also like to see robust statements by the UK government, critical of Canada’s environmental policies. When Cameron went to China, we were assured he was going to raise the issue of human rights with Wen Jiabao. Where was the similar assurance about raising the issue of climate change with Harper?
Finally, I’m puzzled by the piece on Chris Davies‘ blog written by his campaign manager Richard Marbrow. Although it is written by Marbrow, Damian Carrington quotes Davies directly in the Guardian, so I think we can assume Marbrow is conveying Davies’ views. As the Lib-Dem spokesman on Environment and Public Health in the European Parliament, I would have expected Davies to have had a conversation with Norman Baker, before now, about the FQD. Maybe they have, but if so, Marbrow seems to be ignorant of what was said. I’d like to know whether Davies is concerned about the “15 secret meetings”, or does he also object to heavy conventional crudes being categorised?
The last paragraph of the article where Marbrow wishes that the matter was being dealt with by the DECC rather than Transport seems to suggest that he’d prefer Chris Huhne to be dealing with it rather than Norman Baker. I think it is a rather catty remark.
Amended 6.08 pm. I’d not noticed that the article on Chris Davies site was actually written by his campaign manager Richard Marbrow.