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‘Whole neighbourhoods were covered in a layer of ash. The houses, the streets, cars, everything was covered with ashes,’ Martin Manxto from the Spanish city of Bilbao tells us. Pollution is nothing new for the inhabitants of the adjacent village Muskiz. For thirty years the Petronor refinery, owned by multinational Repsol, has caused ash flakes to regularly descend from its chimneys on the houses of the inhabitants of this densely populated area.

What is new however, is the load of raw tar sands oil which at the time was being processed there. The refinery is visibly struggling to process this heavy form of crude. The first freighter, filled with 600.000 barrels of Canadian tar sand oil, entered the harbour of Bilbao early June 2014.

In 2012 Europe imported no more than 4.000 barrels tar sands a day. But it is expected this will increase significantly: in raw form from Canada, or processed into diesel or gasoline from the US. The Canadian organisation Natural Resources Defence Council predicts that in 2020 imports will rise to a whopping 725.000 barrels a day. Trade agreements like CETA and TTIP play an important role in this rise.

Trade treaties

When thinking of trade treaties, neighbourhoods covered in ash are not the first thing that comes to mind. Why would trade-treaties influence our climate policies?

Yet they are, as becomes apparent from developments regarding the trade treaties between Europe and Canada (the already finalized Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA) and the United States (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, better known as TTIP). The reason: trade negotiations used to be about reducing trade barriers, such as quota and import taxes, but nowadays they mostly cover the alignment of regulations.

Trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström insists that the alignment of European and American regulations ‘will not be at the expense of the environment, health, safety or consumer protection.’ Yet European climate and food safety regulations have already been watered down as a result of trade negotiations. The tar sands oil which is trickling into Europe is one example.

Tar sands

Most tar sands – a mix of sand, clay and oil – are located in the Canadian province Alberta. The climate impact of tar sands oil is high, as CO2 emissions caused by this oil are much higher than those of conventional oil.

Not only the climate, also the population suffers because of the tar sands industry, says Allan Adam, chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. It causes large scale water pollution: 'Our children get skin rashes when they swim in the lake. As a child I could drink from our rivers, nowadays that is impossible.' The population struggles with health problems and increased cancer rates. 'The industry keeps claiming they cannot be appointed as the sole cause, but our research shows otherwise.'

Canada is the largest exporter of tar sands worldwide. Over the last years the country has invested heavily in the expansion of its production capacity and is looking for new export markets. The European market, dependent as it is on the import of oil and its derivatives, is calling.

Before Canadian tar sands reach Europe, they are processed in American refineries, based mostly on the gulf of Mexico. Here too the stakes are high. In 2012 trade with Europe in gasoline and diesel was worth 32 billion dollars.