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Oil Sands Emissions Higher Than Previously Estimated: Report

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OILSANDS EMISSION REPORT
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. | AFP/Getty

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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