Oxford Becomes Europe’s First ‘Tar-Free City’

Council discussing the Tar-Free motion. Photo by James Atherton

June 25, 2013: Yesterday evening, in a near-unanimous vote, Oxford City Council declared itself a ‘Tar-Free City‘ by voting in favour of a motion (see below) tabled by Green Party councillor Sam Hollick. This makes Oxford the first city in Europe to reject the use of highly-polluting tar sands oil, by adjusting the policies governing the procurement of fuel to the Council for municipal use. It comes as Europe faces the real possibility of tar sands oil being imported in large quantities for the first time.

The Canadian tar sands are the largest energy project on earth, and oil companies are increasingly turning to this ‘unconventional’ source of fuel. However, tar sands oil has been labelled ‘game over for the climate‘ by leading climate scientist James Hansen, due to its highly carbon-intensive extraction process and vast reserves. Locally, new extraction projects are being opposed by First Nations suffering ill-effects on their health, livelihoods and traditions – such as the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Beaver Lake Cree. There are also strong opposition movements to opening up the tar sands to new markets, including Europe, via pipelines such as the Keystone XL in the States and the Enbridge Northern Gateway in British Columbia. For peer-reviewed facts and figures on the true impact of the tar sands, see tarsandsrealitycheck.com.

Oxford’s announcement will boost attempts by the EU to pass a piece of climate legislation labelling tar sands-derived oil as more polluting than conventional oil. Known as the ‘Fuel Quality Directive’, it would strongly discourage future large-scale imports of the fuel, and as a result is being bitterly opposed by Canada and the oil industry. A vote is expected later this year.

The Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the European transport sector by 6% by 2020. This legislation will see oil imports being labelled according to their carbon intensity. Tar sands oil, which the EU has calculated is 23% more carbon-intensive throughout its entire lifecycle than conventional oil, should be labelled as such. This measure would therefore discourage tar sands imports into Europe by making them less profitable than cleaner fuels, and is being aggressively lobbied against by the Canadian government and oil companies such as Shell and BP

Yesterday’s vote by Oxford’s City Council highlights the growing resistance to impending imports of these dirty fuels, and is evidence that people in the UK support their elected officials in taking strong action on climate change now. Oxford joined a growing list of US cities and towns (see full list here) which have declared themselves to be ‘Tar-Free’ and several major US companies who have also vowed to stop using tar sands oil in their vehicle fleet.

Ruthi Brandt of Tar-Free Oxford and UK Tar Sands Network said: “This is very exciting! Oxford is now the first city in the UK, and in the whole of Europe, to have formally rejected dirty tar sands oil. We hope that soon Europe as a whole will stop tar sands from being imported by passing the Fuel Quality Directive. The Tar-Free Oxford group has received a lot of support from people in the city, and I am proud to live in such a forward-thinking community.”

Miranda Shaw of Tar-Free Oxford said: “We are part of a growing global movement fighting to keep the tar sands in the ground, and I am very happy to see our beloved Oxford is leading the way to a more sustainable future. Europe doesn’t need this extreme energy source, which is responsible for so much destruction, and our Council understands that we need to embrace clean, green fuels if we are to have a chance of stopping runaway climate change. I hope other towns and cities will follow Oxford’s lead and take a stand.”

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The full wording of the motion:

This council notes that: Canada’s tar sands are the biggest energy project in the world. Already, millions of barrels of tar sands oil have been extracted from the Canadian wilderness, decimating the landscape and producing 3.2 to 4.5 times more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil extraction (as calculated for example by the US Government’s National Energy Technology Laboratory). Nearby First Nations communities are also being devastated by the loss of their traditional lands and access to food and medicine. In 2008, Alberta Health confirmed a 30 per cent rise of cancer rates between 1995 – 2006 in Fort Chipewyan, a nearby community.

Although tar sands oil hasn’t yet arrived in the UK insignificant quantities, its large-scale import is highly likely as Canada attempts to find new markets for export. Opening up Europe and the UK to tar sands would be a green light for more reckless expansion of this huge industry.

This council also notes that: the City Council’s Carbon Management Plan states that the council “places environmental sustainability and carbon reduction at the heart of everything that the Council does”, and believes that an important part of the city’s responsibility in “provid[ing] wider leadership…in reducing the overall carbon footprint of the City” is rejecting tar sands for the carbon-intensive fuel that they are.

This council therefore resolves to:

1. Rejects tar sands as an acceptable source of liquid fuel, and declare Oxford a ‘Tar Free City’;

2. Include measures in its future liquid fuels procurement policies which will ensure that tar sands will not be part of the fuel mix it purchases for its vehicle and plant fleet.

2 thoughts on “Oxford Becomes Europe’s First ‘Tar-Free City’

  1. The power used for extraction is only part of the story. Extraction is also very harmful to huge tracts of land, with pollutants being found in lakes 100 miles away, vast areas of forest (or “over burden” in industry jargon) being removed and nearby communities showing abnormal levels of rare cancers. To name but a few of the problems… The refinement process is also very energy intensive, involving toxic chemicals, and the transport of the partially-refined oil is an accident in the making (as is constantly happening in Canada. Seriously, pipelines seem to rupture and leak every other day over there…), as bitumen is much more corrosive than normal fuel and pipelines are much more likely to leak.
    Not to mention that the whole concept of investing in developing a new source of fossil fuel, when everything we know is screaming at us to change direction, is just mind-bogglingly short-sighted

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