New hopes that tar sands could be banned from Europe

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A landmark directive with the potential to ban tar sands oil from Europe has been reprieved, the Guardian has learned.

The EU’s most senior energy official confirmed that the fuel quality directive (FQD) to encourage greener road fuels will not be scrapped at the end of the decade, as had been thought.

Around 15% of Europe’s carbon emissions come from road transport and ambitious plans for cutting emissions from vehicles are expected to form a significant chunk of the bloc’s ‘Energy Union’ proposals next week.

Asked by the Guardian whether that meant the FQD would continue after 2020, the EU’s vice president for energy union, Maroš Šefčovič, said: “My first reaction is yes. We just have to adjust it to all the lessons learned from biofuels, and all the [other] lessons learned from the previous time.”

The FQD has been a platform for measures intended to price tar sands out of the European market – and for targets to provide 10% of Europe’s transport fuel from low carbon sources, mostly biofuels, by 2020.

Transport fuels are the only European sector in which emissions are still rising and the directive mandates a 6% reduction in their greenhouse gas intensity by 2020.

But specific measures to bring this about in the FQD were strongly opposed by Canada, which threatened trade retaliation if the EU acted on scientific adviceand taxed tar sands oil at a higher rate because they are more polluting than conventional oil.

Environmentalists also complained that the 10% target for biofuels was driving deforestation and pushing up commodity prices.

Last year, the commission appeared to wash its hands of the whole issue, sayingthat it did “not think it appropriate” to establish new greenhouse gas intensity targets for transport fuels after 2020.

The news that this position seems to have changed under a new commission was applauded by Friends of the Earth Europe. “It’s vital the Commission tackles Europe’s transport emissions, which will be the largest source of emissions by 2030,” said Colin Roche, a campaigner for the group.

“What’s absolutely crucial now is that any renewal of the fuel quality directive is a real deterrent to European imports of climate-killing tars sands and damaging crop-based biofuels,” he added. “Europe cannot afford to ignore this black hole in their climate strategy.”

The Cooperative, which has an ethical investment policy, believes that a continuation of the FQD opens up new possibilities for investor action on tar sands.

“It would be incredibly useful for responsible investors to be able to look at the carbon intensity of different oil companies’ products – to put pressure on them to reduce it, and speed the shift to a a low carbon economy,” said Colin Baines, the bank’s campaigns manager.

A reprieve for the directive will also improve the chances of a positive vote on sustainability criteria for biofuels in the European Parliament, according to Jos Dings, the director of the Transport and Environment think tank.

“This is an important and very significant announcement,” he told the Guardian. “If the commission is prepared to look again at the clean transport fuel issue, it can only be an encouragement to do the right thing in parliament next week.”