Big oil, democracy and people power | World Development Movement

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Big oil, democracy and people power

By Guest, 27 February 2012

Guest post by Liam Barrington-Bush, tar sands-free campaign manager, People & Planet

I’m still catching my breath, nearly a week after an EU vote on reducing transport fuel emissions!  Seeing that sentence in writing, I realise it might not sound quite as exciting to those who weren’t active in the campaign that surrounded it. So let me take a step back for a moment and explain... 

What the Fuel Quality Directive is all about

Since 2008, the EU has been debating a ‘Fuel Quality Directive’ (FQD) – a set of measures that would aim to reduce the continent’s transport-related emissions 6% by 2020.

Excited yet?

The proposal included labelling tar sands oil – the dirtiest transport fuel in commercial production and 23% worse for the world than most conventional crudes.

Big Oil gets in the way of democracy...

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the oil companies making a killing in the Northern Alberta oil fields where tar sands were first found (though they are now being explored in Madagascar, Venezuela and elsewhere), decided, along with the Canadian Government, that they didn’t want their dirty oil to be known as ‘dirty oil’. So they started trying to undermine democratic processes all over Europe to keep their product from becoming widely known as the planet-killer that it is.

Canada, with the aid of BP, Shell, Total and other giants of industry, made it their mission to get European governments to vote against the Fuel Quality Directive, even threatening a trade war at the WTO and promoting tar sands as ‘environmentally and socially responsible’ at public events in Europe.

As a result, the UK – even with career environmentalist Norman Baker MP responsible for the vote – was actively lobbying other European governments last autumn to abandon the proposal.

People Power takes on Canada and Big Oil!

But all the closed-door meetings between EU Government officials and Canadian lobbyists couldn’t stop People & Planet, the Co-operative, UK Tar Sands Network, Greenpeace UK, Lush, UKYCC, Climate Rush, WDM and others from taking a stand and making some noise about it!

  • Tens of thousands of letters were sent to Norman Baker and his LibDem boss, Nick Clegg, telling them to take a stand against the tar sands.
  • Direct action stunts – some getting quite oily – happened in London, Oxford and Sheffield in the lead-up to the vote.
  • We launched a new film about the tar sands, spoke to civil servants outside of Parliament and kicked-up a fuss wherever we could in the weeks before the February 23rd vote.

The result?

After a heated campaign, the EU member states came to a stalemate, achieving less than the three-quarters qualified majority required for approval, but keeping the FQD alive to fight another day.

...which is actually a pretty impressive result, given the vested interests we had been up against!

The final decision on keeping tar sands oil out of Europe will now shift to the EU's Council of Ministers.  It will have two months to complete an alternative proposal before a vote at the European Parliament will decide if it is passed into law, likely in June 2012.

Who benefits from a stalemate?

While the stalemate will delay binding legislation against the tar sands, we succeeded in getting abstentions (rather than the expected 'no' votes) from the FQD’s two strongest opponents, the UK and the Netherlands, respective homes to tar sands-exploiting BP and Shell.  This is thanks in huge part to all those of you who wrote to Norman Baker and Nick Clegg, as well as those who helped keep the story in the news by other means.

In the face of massive lobbying from the Canadian Government and the oil industry, the UK abstention represents a major policy shift, from a government that had previously told Canada that they would help "progress discussions in Brussels" in line with Canadian policy objectives.

Next steps?

The next steps of the campaign involve keeping up the pressure on 'the greenest government ever'.

In the face of massive vested interests, people power has shifted outright rejections of the FQD by several key countries to abstentions, and people power will be the only force that will turn the UK's abstention this time, into a 'yes' vote in the next round.

With this next phase of the campaign, we want every MP in the country to hear about the tar sands and the steps they can take to ensure the UK takes a more principled stance as discussions go forward. People & Planet will have a new e-action going live shortly, and are keen to hear your ideas to publicly hold the government to account in the coming months.

Liam Barrington-Bush is People & Planet’s Tar Sands-Free Campaign Manager, a reluctantly-Canadian Londoner and @hackofalltrades on Twitter.

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