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LONDON (Reuters) - A group of Nobel peace prize winners urged European leaders in a letter on Thursday to support an EU Commission proposal to class fuel from oil sands as highly polluting.
"Tar sand development is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, and threatens the health of the planet," eight Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, said in the letter.
"As the tar sands have contributed to rising emissions, Canada recently stepped away from the Kyoto Protocol. Europe must not follow in Canada's footsteps."
Environmentalists say there is growing scientific evidence that oil sands crude is more carbon-intensive than oil from other sources and that a shift to greener forms of energy should avert the need to extract every last drop of oil.
EU officials are expected to vote on February 23 on a draft law in an amendment to its fuel quality directive that includes tar sands in a ranking to enable fuel suppliers to identify the most carbon-intensive options.
The proposal has stirred up intense lobbying by Canada. Home to the world's third-largest oil reserves, almost all of which are in the form of tar sands, also referred to as oil sands, Canada has argued the EU is unfairly discriminating against it.
Under the draft EU proposal, tar sands are assigned a default greenhouse gas value of 107 grams of carbon per megajoule, showing buyers it has more environmental impact than conventional crude with 87.5 grams.
The laureates said that the EU fuel quality directive could move Europe away from dependency on oil, coal and natural gas to renewable energy sources if the policy was implemented properly.
They also praised U.S. President Barack Obama's rejection of a proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have increased the amount of tar sands oil produced and transported from Canada to the United States.
"Even oil-obsessed America refused to take the gamble and shelved plans for a tar sands pipeline this winter," Franziska Achterberg, EU transport policy adviser at Greenpeace, said in response to the letter.
"The question is whether Europe is prepared to say no to the oil lobby and to tar sands, which represent the exact opposite of the clean, climate-friendly future that we urgently need."
EU ministerial talks next week are expected to be difficult and unlikely to get a qualified majority as objections to ranking tar sands as more polluting have stirred opposition in some EU nations, where oil majors active in Canada such as Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Total are based.
If there is a stalemate, the debate could shift from the level of EU technical experts to open discussion among EU ministers and the Commission could decide to amend its proposal.
Reporting by Nina Chestney; editing by James Jukwey