Obama’s Top Official Pushing Tar Sands in Secret Trade Deal

Trade rep. advocates for dirty oil industry against EU’s already-insufficient regs despite Obama’s promises to cut carbon

- Sarah Lazare, staff writer

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman confirmed by President Obama in May 2013 (Photo: AP)

As President Obama publicly promises to curb carbon emissions, his top trade official is pushing for tar sands industry handouts and influence in the highly secretive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, launching attacks on EU tar sands regulations that green groups say are already too insufficient.

“The U.S. has no business rolling back any kind of protection from the world’s dirtiest oil at a time when we’re supposed to be making progress on climate,” Eddie Scher of the Sierra Club told Common Dreams.

Questioned before the House Ways and Means Committee in late July, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman railed against a proposed change to the EU Fuel Quality Directive that requires a 6 percent reduction in gas and diesel emissions by 2020. The ammendment under question would label bitumen—oil extracted from tar sands—as a high-emissions diesel, a rating that would ‘discourage‘ but not prevent EU fuel suppliers from buying tar sands oil.

Environmental groups say that the regulation that Froman is attempting to gut is already grossly insufficient. “The regulation is not really doing anything,” Scott Parkin of Rainforest Action Network told Common Dreams. “It’s just saying tar sands should be called something different. We are saying that tar sands need to stay in the ground. Period.”

Yet, Froman charges this so-called regulation goes too far. When Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) claimed the proposed regulations are “discriminatory, environmentally unjustified and could constitute a barrier to U.S.-EU trade,” Froman stated, “I share your concerns.”

“I have raised these issues with senior Commission officials on several occasions, including in the context of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP),” he wrote in a letter to the House Ways and Means Committee. “We continue to press the Commission to take the views of stakeholders, including U.S. refiners, under considerations as they finalize these amendments.”

Obama’s trade official is publicly advocating for the tar sands oil industry despite the president’s June speech in which he declared he would cut carbon emissions and only approve the Keystone XL pipeline if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

Green groups, who say the oil pipeline would increase carbon emissions by definition, are organizing a mounting campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline and tar sands extraction. So far, 75,000 people have pledged to commit civil disobedience if the president approves the pipeline.Protest against tar sands extraction in London in 2009. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons / Eugenio hidden side) Opponents of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline demonstrate in front of the White House in 2011. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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Michael Froman, Top U.S. Trade Official, Lobbies For Tar Sands Oil In EU Negotiations

Posted: 09/24/2013 5:50 pm EDT  |  Updated: 09/25/2013 5:12 pm EDT

Building the Keystone XL pipeline is only part of the equation. Once the Canadian tar sands are pumped and piped to refineries on the Gulf Coast, the industry still needs to find buyers for its end product — much of which will be exported.

That’s where U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman comes in.

Environmental groups in the U.S. and the European Union are worried that Froman, the chief trade official for the United States, has been quietly working to pressure the EU to make it easier for U.S. refiners to sell oil from the tar sands on the European market. They say Froman is pushing his EU counterparts to weaken environmental guidelines related to greenhouse gas emissions in order to facilitate easier oil exports.

The European Commission has set an overall goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. One measure aimed at meeting that goal is the Fuel Quality Directive, which requires a 6 percent reduction in emissions from transportation fuels like gasoline and diesel by 2020. A proposal currently under consideration to help achieve that goal would assign values to different types of fuel based on the emissions they generate. The proposal assigns a higher value to bitumen, a type of oil extracted from tar sands that has 12 to 40 percent higher lifecycle emissions than conventional types of crude oil.

Fuel suppliers in the EU would still get to pick what fuels they include in their portfolio, but the rating would be used to provide guidance about what goes in the mix. Based on a recent written statement, advocacy groups are concerned that Froman may be working to weaken the fuel guidelines as part of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a trade deal that the U.S. and the European Commission are currently discussing.

Froman testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on July 18, and recently provided a written response to follow-up questions from the hearing. The answers were posted online last week by the trade journal Inside U.S. Trade (subscription required).

In his questions for Froman, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said that he believes the Fuel Quality Directive’s guidance on tar sands oil is “discriminatory, environmentally unjustified and could constitute a barrier to U.S.-EU trade.”

“I share your concerns regarding the European Union’s development of proposals for amendments to the Fuel Quality Directive,” wrote Froman in response. In particular, Froman identified what he called a “lack of adequate transparency and public participation in the process” and said that the U.S. is seeking “improvements in the EU’s overall regulatory practices” through the TTIP process.

“We continue to press the Commission to take the views of stakeholders, including U.S. refiners, under consideration as they finalize these amendments,” Froman wrote.

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With the fate of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline still in the hands of U.S. President Barack Obama five years on, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a crowd of business leaders gathered in New York that he will not take no for an answer.

Harper, who participated in a question and answer session with the Canadian American Business Council on the second day of his visit to New York Thursday afternoon, said “my view is you don’t take no for an answer.”

“We haven’t had that but if we were to get that, that won’t be final. This won’t be final until it’s approved and we will keep pushing forward,” Harper said.

The event was moderated by CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo.

Asked by Bartiromo when he last spoke to Obama about the Keystone XL pipeline, Harper said he has been in touch with the U.S. president “very regularly” on the matter.

“The president has always assured me that he’ll make a decision that’s in, what he believes is, the best interest of the United States based on the facts. I think the facts are clear, ” Harper said.

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