OTTAWA - The Netherlands foreign minister says he favours an evidence-based discussion on whether Alberta's oilsands are being discriminated against under the European Union's proposed fuel-quality directive.
Earlier this year, Canada picked up a key ally when the Netherlands, with France and Britain, abstained from a key vote that delayed Europe's fuel-quality directive until next year — a directive the Harper government views as discriminatory, and has vigorously lobbied against across Europe.
"We think that it's important to be serious about oilsands, no doubt about that. At the same time, we are open to discussions about the threat of discriminatory practices and we are also ... very much leaning towards evidence-based analysis," Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said in an interview Friday.
Canada has lobbied hard for two years to block the EU's fuel-quality directive, which it says would unfairly label oilsands crude as dirty oil. The directive would assign greenhouse-gas emission values to different sources of fuel, and Canada fears oilsands crude would be categorized 23-per-cent higher than conventional oil.
Canada sells very little oil to Europe, but is worried about the precedent such a label would set.
Rosenthal deflected attempts to pin down where his government stands on the oilsands. But he sent sympathetic signals toward Canada.
It's no secret that the Netherlands' own Royal Dutch Shell is investing in the Alberta oil fields, as are the major oil companies of Britain and France.
"I don't feel able to go into the specifics of this, but I do know that part of the discussion is about the threat of discriminatory outcomes of the implementation of such a directive," said Rosenthal, who was in Ottawa for discussions with Harper cabinet ministers ahead of the NATO summit in Chicago on the weekend.
"If we abstain in the voting process, it's because we think it's necessary to abstain. We don't talk about lobbies because lobbies from one side will be countered and neutralized by lobbies from the other side."
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who has led Ottawa's campaign against the directive, has said repeatedly that Canada is being unfairly discriminated against. He has argued that oilsands crude produces similar, or in some cases, lower greenhouse-gas emissions than some of the EU's sources of oil imports.
The Canadian lobbying that Oliver spearheaded in Europe was heavily opposed by environmental groups. In the end, the lobbying appears to have bought Canada some time because the EU decided last month to conduct an impact study on the directive, postponing a vote until 2013.
"We don't talk about myths, we talk about facts. And these facts should come on the table in a very straightforward way," Rosenthal said.
"There are a couple of concerns we, on our end, have. And if the Canadians have these concerns as well, that is then part of the story."
On other major issues, there is not so much as a crack of daylight between the Dutch and Canada.
The countries are staunch allies because of Canada's liberation of Holland from Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
Rosenthal said his country is pushing hard for the completion of a Canada-EU free-trade agreement before the year is out.
Rosenthal also threw unequivocal support behind Canada's decision — criticized in some quarters — to create an Office of Religious Freedom in the Foreign Affairs Department.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has yet to formally announce the creation of the new office, even though the Conservatives introduced it in their last election campaign platform 13 months ago.
Rosenthal said his country would join with Canada at the United Nations General Assembly in September to "press for a focus on individual freedom of religion."
"It is an unacceptable violation of human rights. Restricting religious freedom, whether of groups or individuals, ultimately threatens international peace and security," he told students in an earlier speech Friday at the University of Ottawa.
"So freedom of religion is an important theme in my human-rights policy."
The refining or upgrading of the tarry bitumen which lies under the oil sands consumes far more oil and energy than conventional oil and produces almost twice as much carbon. Each barrel of oil requires 3-5 barrels of fresh water from the neighboring Athabasca River. About 90% of this is returned as toxic tailings into the vast unlined tailings ponds that dot the landscape. Syncrude alone dumps 500,000 tons of toxic tailings into just one of their tailings ponds everyday.
This area, located in the extreme northwest of British Columbia, marks the western boundary of the Boreal region. On the border of the Yukon and Southeast Alaska, the western flank of these mountains descends into Alaska's Tongass Rainforest and British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest. Far from the oil sands, the greatest remaining coastal temperate and marine ecosystem is imminently threatened by the proposal to build a 750-mile pipeline to pump 550,000 barrels per day of oil sands crude to the coast. Once there, it would be shipped through some of the most treacherous waters, virtually assuring an ecological disaster at some point in the future.
Even in the extreme cold of the winter, the toxic tailings ponds do not freeze. On one particularly cold morning, the partially frozen tailings, sand, liquid tailings and oil residue, combined to produce abstractions that reminded me of a Jackson Pollock canvas.
Photographed in late autumn in softly falling snow, a solitary spruce is set against a sea of aspen. The Boreal Forest of northern Canada is perhaps the best and largest example of a largely intact forest ecosystem. Canada's Boreal Forest alone stores an amount of carbon equal to ten times the total annual global emissions from all fossil fuel consumption.
Twenty four hours a day the oil sands eats into the most carbon rich forest ecosystem on the planet. Storing almost twice as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests, the boreal forest is the planet's greatest terrestrial carbon storehouse. To the industry, these diverse and ecologically significant forests and wetlands are referred to as overburden, the forest to be stripped and the wetlands dredged and replaced by mines and tailings ponds so vast they can be seen from outer space.
In an effort to deal with the problem of tailings ponds, Suncor is experimenting with dry tailings technology. This has the potential to limit, or eliminate, the need for vast tailings ponds in the future and lessen this aspect of the oil sands' impact.
So large are the Alberta Tar Sands tailings ponds that they can be seen from space. It has been estimated by Natural Resources Canada that the industry to date has produced enough toxic waste to fill a canal 32 feet deep by 65 feet wide from Fort McMurray to Edmonton, and on to Ottawa, a distance of over 2,000 miles. In this image, the sky is reflected in the toxic and oily waste of a tailings pond.
The Caracajou River winds back and forth creating this oxbow of wetlands as it joins the Mackenzie flowing north to the Beaufort Sea. This region, almost entirely pristine, and the third largest watershed basin in the world, will be directly impacted by the proposed Mackenzie Valley National Gas Pipeline to fuel the energy needs of the Alberta Oil Sands mega-project.
Oil sands pit mining is done in benches or steps. These benches are each approximately 12-15 meters high. Giant shovels dig the oil sand and place it into heavy hauler trucks that range in size from 240 tons to the largest trucks, which have a 400-ton capacity.
The Alberta oil sands are Canada's single largest source of carbon. They produce about as much annually as the nation of Denmark. The refining of the tar-like bitumen requires more water and uses almost twice as much energy as the production of conventional oil. Particularly visible in winter, vast plumes of toxic pollution fill the skies. The oil sands are so large they create their own weather systems.
Located just 70 miles downstream from the Alberta oil sands, the Athabasca Delta is the world's largest freshwater delta. It lies at the convergence of North America's four major flyways and is a critical stopover for migrating waterfowl and considered one of the most globally significant wetlands. It is threatened both by the massive water consumption of the tar sands and its toxic tailings ponds.
This network of roads reminded me of a claw or tentacles. It represents for me the way in which the tentacles of the tar sands reach out and wreak havoc and destruction. Proposed pipelines to American Midwest, Mackenzie Valley, and through the Great Bear Rainforest will bring new threats to these regions while the pipelines fuel new markets and ensure the proposed five fold expansion of the oil sands.