Carbon emissions from Alberta’s oil sands are higher than previously estimated, but still within a similar range of other high-emissions fuels, says a new study.
According to updated data from business information company IHS, Canadian oil sands product refined in the United States emits nine per cent more carbon on average than other forms of refined fuel. In its previous report, the IHS had estimated this at six per cent.
The report said it had revised its estimate largely because it had underestimated the amount of carbon emissions involved in the oil sands extraction process.
But the report noted that this doesn’t put oil sands bitumen into a class of its own.
“Although oil sands-derived crudes are more carbon intensive than the average oil refined in the United States, they are within the range of some other crude oils produced, imported, or refined in the United States, including crudes from Venezuela, Nigeria, Iraq, and California heavy oil production,” the report said.
That will likely not be much comfort for environmental activists trying to stop the U.S. from importing oil sands product on the argument that it is the “dirtiest fuel on earth” and the oil sands themselves the “largest and most destructive project on Earth.”
Greg Stringham, vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, told Reuters the new number changes little in terms of the debate around the oil sands, but “it does show that we need to push on the technology side to make sure that we continue to drive down to our objective to get that number smaller.”
Many oil sands operators have rallied in recent years around the idea of a technological solution to oil sands emissions. Much of that effort has focused on carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects, meant to trap emissions before they escape into the atmosphere.
Canada is at the forefront of this effort, with researchers at the International Performance Assessment Centre for Geologic Storage of Carbon Dioxide in Regina this week announcing they had completed the world’s first guidelines for development of CCS projects.
Royal Dutch Shell has already announced a CCS project for its upgrading facility near Edmonton that aims to capture about one million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. The captured gas will be injected into a porous rock formation about 80 kilometres away from the facility.
Critics of Shell’s program say it will do little to change the environmental balance and amounts to a “greenwash” for the expansion of oil sands production.
Canada’s oil industry is waiting on tenterhooks to see if the Obama administration will approve the Keystone XL pipeline project, a $7-billion pipeline network expansion that would allow 1.1 million barrels of Canadian oil to flow to the U.S. daily.
The project has become a flashpoint for opposition to the oil sands, prompting the Obama administration to delay its decision on the pipeline. Washington insiders now say the pipeline will likely be approved.
But the delay prompted Canada’s government and oil producers into a renewed push to find new markets in Asia for Canadian oil -- something that a recent report from the International Energy Agency says is necessary, because U.S. dependence on foreign oil is expected to fall dramatically in the wake of the country’s own shale oil boom.
Some analysts have criticized the IEA report for an overly optimistic prediction of U.S. oil capacity, and discount the idea the U.S. may not have to import Canadian oil in coming decades.
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Syncrude Upgrader and Oil Sands
The refining or upgrading of the tarry bitumen which lies under the oil sands consumes far more oil and energy than conventional oil and produces almost twice as much carbon. Each barrel of oil requires 3-5 barrels of fresh water from the neighboring Athabasca River. About 90% of this is returned as toxic tailings into the vast unlined tailings ponds that dot the landscape. Syncrude alone dumps 500,000 tons of toxic tailings into just one of their tailings ponds everyday.
Boreal Forest and Coast Mountains / Atlin Lake, British Columbia | 2001
This area, located in the extreme northwest of British Columbia, marks the western boundary of the Boreal region. On the border of the Yukon and Southeast Alaska, the western flank of these mountains descends into Alaska's Tongass Rainforest and British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest. Far from the oil sands, the greatest remaining coastal temperate and marine ecosystem is imminently threatened by the proposal to build a 750-mile pipeline to pump 550,000 barrels per day of oil sands crude to the coast. Once there, it would be shipped through some of the most treacherous waters, virtually assuring an ecological disaster at some point in the future.
Tailings Pond in Winter, Abstract #2 / Alberta Tar Sands | 2010
Even in the extreme cold of the winter, the toxic tailings ponds do not freeze. On one particularly cold morning, the partially frozen tailings, sand, liquid tailings and oil residue, combined to produce abstractions that reminded me of a Jackson Pollock canvas.
Aspen and Spruce | Northern Alberta | 2001
Photographed in late autumn in softly falling snow, a solitary spruce is set against a sea of aspen. The Boreal Forest of northern Canada is perhaps the best and largest example of a largely intact forest ecosystem. Canada's Boreal Forest alone stores an amount of carbon equal to ten times the total annual global emissions from all fossil fuel consumption.
Tar Sands at Night #1 | Alberta Oil Sands | 2010
Twenty four hours a day the oil sands eats into the most carbon rich forest ecosystem on the planet. Storing almost twice as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests, the boreal forest is the planet's greatest terrestrial carbon storehouse. To the industry, these diverse and ecologically significant forests and wetlands are referred to as overburden, the forest to be stripped and the wetlands dredged and replaced by mines and tailings ponds so vast they can be seen from outer space.
Dry Tailings #2 | Alberta Tar Sands | 2010
In an effort to deal with the problem of tailings ponds, Suncor is experimenting with dry tailings technology. This has the potential to limit, or eliminate, the need for vast tailings ponds in the future and lessen this aspect of the oil sands' impact.
Tailings Pond Abstract #2 | Alberta Tar Sands / 2010
So large are the Alberta Tar Sands tailings ponds that they can be seen from space. It has been estimated by Natural Resources Canada that the industry to date has produced enough toxic waste to fill a canal 32 feet deep by 65 feet wide from Fort McMurray to Edmonton, and on to Ottawa, a distance of over 2,000 miles. In this image, the sky is reflected in the toxic and oily waste of a tailings pond.
Confluence of Carcajou River and Mackenzie River | Mackenzie Valley, NWT | 2005
The Caracajou River winds back and forth creating this oxbow of wetlands as it joins the Mackenzie flowing north to the Beaufort Sea. This region, almost entirely pristine, and the third largest watershed basin in the world, will be directly impacted by the proposed Mackenzie Valley National Gas Pipeline to fuel the energy needs of the Alberta Oil Sands mega-project.
Black Cliff | Alberta Oil Sands | 2005
Oil sands pit mining is done in benches or steps. These benches are each approximately 12-15 meters high. Giant shovels dig the oil sand and place it into heavy hauler trucks that range in size from 240 tons to the largest trucks, which have a 400-ton capacity.
Oil Sands Upgrader in Winter| Alberta Oil Sands | 2010
The Alberta oil sands are Canada's single largest source of carbon. They produce about as much annually as the nation of Denmark. The refining of the tar-like bitumen requires more water and uses almost twice as much energy as the production of conventional oil. Particularly visible in winter, vast plumes of toxic pollution fill the skies. The oil sands are so large they create their own weather systems.
Boreal Forest and Wetland | Athabasca Delta Northern Alberta | 2010
Located just 70 miles downstream from the Alberta oil sands, the Athabasca Delta is the world's largest freshwater delta. It lies at the convergence of North America's four major flyways and is a critical stopover for migrating waterfowl and considered one of the most globally significant wetlands. It is threatened both by the massive water consumption of the tar sands and its toxic tailings ponds.
Tar Pit #3
This network of roads reminded me of a claw or tentacles. It represents for me the way in which the tentacles of the tar sands reach out and wreak havoc and destruction. Proposed pipelines to American Midwest, Mackenzie Valley, and through the Great Bear Rainforest will bring new threats to these regions while the pipelines fuel new markets and ensure the proposed five fold expansion of the oil sands.
10. Oil And Gas Accounts For 4.8 Per Cent Of GDP
The oil and gas industries accounted for around $65 billion of economic activity in Canada annually in recent years, or slightly less than 5 per cent of GDP. Source: <a href="http://www.ceri.ca/docs/2010-10-05CERIOilandGasReport.pdf" target="_hplink">Canada Energy Research Institute</a>
9. Oil Exports Have Grown Tenfold Since 1980
Canada exported some 12,000 cubic metres of oil per day in 1980. By 2010, that number had grown to 112,000 cubic metres daily. Source: <a href="http://membernet.capp.ca/SHB/Sheet.asp?SectionID=9&SheetID=224" target="_hplink">Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers</a>
8. Refining Didn't Grow At All As Exports Boomed
Canada refined 300,000 cubic metres daily in 1980; in 2010, that number was slightly down, to 291,000, even though exports of oil had grown tenfold in that time. Source: <a href="http://membernet.capp.ca/SHB/Sheet.asp?SectionID=7&SheetID=104" target="_hplink">Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers</a>
7. 97 Per Cent Of Oil Exports Go To The U.S.
Despite talk by the federal government that it wants to open Asian markets to Canadian oil, the vast majority of exports still go to the United States -- 97 per cent as of 2009. Source: <a href="http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/statistics-facts/energy/895" target="_hplink">Natural Resources Canada</a>
6. Canada Has World's 2nd-Largest Proven Oil Reserves
Canada's proven reserves of 175 billion barrels of oil -- the vast majority of it trapped in the oil sands -- is the second-largest oil stash in the world, after Saudi Arabia's 267 billion. Source: <a href="http://www.ogj.com/index.html" target="_hplink">Oil & Gas Journal</a>
5. Two-Thirds Of Oil Sands Bitumen Goes To U.S.
One-third of Canada's oil sands bitumen stays in the country, and is refined into gasoline, heating oil and diesel. Source: <a href="http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/statistics-facts/energy/895" target="_hplink">Natural Resources Canada</a>
4. Alberta Is Two-Thirds Of The Industry
Despite its reputation as the undisputed centre of Canada's oil industry, Alberta accounts for only two-thirds of energy production. British Columbia and Saskatchewan are the second and third-largest producers. Source: <a href="http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/statistics-facts/energy/895" target="_hplink">Natural Resources Canada</a>
3. Alberta Will Reap $1.2 Trillion From Oil Sands
Alberta' government <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/27/alberta-oil-sands-royalties-ceri_n_1382640.html" target="_hplink">will reap $1.2 trillion in royalties from the oil sands over the next 35 years</a>, according to the Canadian Energy Research Institute.
2. Canadian Oil Consumption Has Stayed Flat
Thanks to improvements in energy efficiency, and a weakening of the country's manufacturing base, oil consumption in Canada has had virtually no net change in 30 years. Consumption went from 287,000 cubic metres daily in 1980 to 260,000 cubic metres daily in 2010. Source: Source: <a href="http://membernet.capp.ca/SHB/Sheet.asp?SectionID=6&SheetID=99" target="_hplink">Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers</a>
1. 250,000 Jobs.. Plus Many More?
The National Energy Board says oil and gas employs 257,000 people in Canada, not including gas station employees. And the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers says the oil sands alone <a href="http://www.capp.ca/aboutUs/mediaCentre/NewsReleases/Pages/OilsandsaCanadianjobcreator.aspx" target="_hplink">will grow from 75,000 jobs to 905,000 jobs by 2035</a> -- assuming, of course, the price of oil holds up.
The federal government approved the takeover of Alberta-based Celtic Exploration by Texas-based ExxonMobil in February 2013. The deal was believed to be worth $3.1 billion.
Calgary-based energy leader Nexen is in the middle of a massive takeover bid worth more than $15-billion by China energy China National Offshore Oil Company, or CNOOC. The deal is currently being reviewed by Canadian Industry Minister Christian Paradis.
Petronas' Progress Energy Takeover
Stakeholders in natural gas producer Progress Energy Resources Corp. have approved a $6-billion takeover of the company by a subsidiary of Malaysia's state-owned Petronas. Meanwhile, the company said the sale to Petronas Carigali Canada Ltd. is not being opposed by the federal government under the Competition Act, which requires major takeover deals to be of net benefit to Canada.
Kuwait's state-owned petroleum company, Kuwait Petroleum Corp., has reportedly signed a preliminary deal to invest as much as $4-billion in a joint venture with Athabasca Oil Corp., for an investment to develop some of Athabasca's (TSX:ATH) oilsands properties in northern Alberta.
In 2009, Athabasca sold a 60 per cent interest in its MacKay River and Dover oilsands lands to PetroChina. In Early 2012, Athabasca exercised its option to sell the rest of MacKay River to PetroChina, making it the first oilsands operation to be fully controlled by a Chinese company.