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Report: Fuel from Canadian Tar Sands Significantly Dirtier Than Average

Simon Mui

Posted February 9, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming

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A new report commissioned by the European Commission (EC) was released this week, evaluating the different greenhouse gas emission (GHG) impacts from Canadian tar sands versus conventional sources of oil. The report reinforces years of academic studies and environmental impact statements showing tar sands being among the dirtiest sources of crude oil.    

The report, conducted by Professor Adam Brandt at Stanford University, compares the estimates from a number of recent studies and models. Among the over fifty data sources and studies referenced, some of the reports included:

  •  Two consulting reports commissioned by the Canadian Albertan government (TIAX and Jacobs Consulting)
  • Results from two separate life-cycle models (Natural Resources Canada and U.S. Department of Energy)
  • A report conducted by the U.S. DOE National Energy Technology Laboratory
  • An industry consulting report by IHS CERA
  • A number of journal publications including those conducted by the University of Toronto

The conclusion?

Average GHG emissions from tar sands are 23% higher than the average fuel currently used in Europe (i.e. 107.3 gCO2e/MJ on a well-to-wheels or lifecycle basis compared to 87.1 g/MJ for the average), with a low estimate of 13% and high estimate at 41% greater emissions. The graph below shows the GHG emission variation as a function of oil production. Brandt Graph.png

For the conventional oil emissions, the low represents production in Norway and the high end represents Nigerian crude oils where gas flaring is known to occur. For the tar sands emissions, the low and high end represents the Canadian CNRL Horizon operation and OPTI-Nexen, Long Lake operation respectively. Note that Brandt’s estimates do not include emissions from land-use change which would likely increase mining operation emissions by another 1-3% on a lifecycle.

The results come at a time when the Canadian government officials and the tar sands industry are lobbying legislators and officials in places like Washington D.C., California, the Northeast, and Europe to prevent enactment of low-carbon fuel policies that account for these emission differences. My colleague Danielle Droitsch at the Pembina Institute blogged on this earlier today.

These so-called “oil sands promotion” tours have been peppered with claims from the Canadian government that tar sands emit “only 5 to 15%” more emissions compared to the average crude oil. As I wrote about in an earlier blog, this claim is largely based on a CERA (2010) meta-analysis purporting to review the literature. Unfortunately, the CERA study lacked the transparency necessary for peer review and did not show how the numbers from primary sources were adjusted. Our review of many of the same studies showed tar sands produced 8 to 37% higher emissions compared to the U.S. average petroleum fuel.

Fortunately for policymakers, the scientific community, and the public at large, there is now another independent report conducted that transparently reviews the literature and breaks down the estimates in detail. Unlike previous reports like by CERA, it provides enough data for officials to check for themselves what the science has been showing.  In addition, the Pembina Institute has also recently published a lifecycle analysis “checklist” to help policymakers evaluate the different studies and include the different emissions that come from tar sands production.

Despite the Canadian government's claims on tar sands, one thing is now clear. Giving high-carbon intensity sources like tar sands a free pass and lower carbon score is not just bad policy, but plain wrong.  

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Comments

Jeff BrownFeb 10 2011 11:33 PM

Wrong for Europe, no doubt but not wrong for Canada. Europe is living well beyond it's natural carbon allotment. They have too many people and too few natural carbon sinks.

Canada on the other hand has a much more sustainable relationship with the carbon cycle. They have few people living in a large country.

With less than one half of one percent of the worlds population living in 9 million sq/kms, complete with 3 cold oceans, they sink more Carbon than they could ever emit.

Canada is the only country that can fully exploit the oil sands and still be a net carbon sink.

Ignoring Canada's tiny population and massive natural carbon sinks is not just bad reporting, it is morally wrong.

Canada can afford the oil sands after all they have been sinking Europe's and the worlds carbon for generations. Canada deserves better than articles like this one.

Devan PetterssonFeb 19 2011 02:33 AM

Interesting points in the first comment:
"Jeff Brown — Feb 10 2011 11:33 PM
Wrong for Europe, no doubt but not wrong for Canada. Europe is living well beyond it's natural carbon allotment. They have too many people and too few natural carbon sinks.

Canada on the other hand has a much more sustainable relationship with the carbon cycle. They have few people living in a large country.

With less than one half of one percent of the worlds population living in 9 million sq/kms, complete with 3 cold oceans, they sink more Carbon than they could ever emit.

Canada is the only country that can fully exploit the oil sands and still be a net carbon sink.

Ignoring Canada's tiny population and massive natural carbon sinks is not just bad reporting, it is morally wrong.

Canada can afford the oil sands after all they have been sinking Europe's and the worlds carbon for generations. Canada deserves better than articles like this one. ]

You seem much more knowledgeable than I about carbon neutrality and all that, so I will defer to your judgement until I am educated further. We may be a net Carbon sink as a country, those of us that are fortunate to be called Canadians.

However, we are NOT alone on this planet... And regardless of how little we effect the planet, we still have to contend with the dumb nut countries that go over their fair share - as their lives are starting to affect our lives. We need to wakeup and smell the proverbial coffee, and start drinking the same koolaid or taking the red pill or whatever euphemism you care for, and start making this world better as a team.

We have to start somewhere - and tarsands that get exploited and then piped across a beautiful province and then shipped through our waters to pay for some new ferraris for some kids and some more bribes for some elected officials and some more dead animals - and surely some more dead people along the way...

Just cos thats the way it is nowadays... Thats smart...

If there is a chance that the entire process from extracting it to building a pipeline that rusts away into nature, and that will cause lots of obstsructions and delays while building - not to mention take a significant amount of resources and manpower to build... For the profit of a few? And the possible detriment of many?

I respect everyones opinions - and ask only that you respect mine.

I do not expect you to agree with me on all points, and I do not profess to be an expert in any of the related subjects - I am simply a passionate person with a bit of knowledge that I read on the internet.
But if you are the least bit concerned about the pipepline or the oil sands - look into it a bit:

Personally I use Wikipedia Alot:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enbridge_Northern_Gateway_Pipelines

http://www.pipeupagainstenbridge.ca

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_sands
"Making liquid fuels from oil sands requires energy for steam injection and refining. This process generates two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel of final product as the production of conventional oil.[3] If combustion of the final products is included, the so-called "Well to Wheels" approach, oil sands extraction, upgrade and use emits 10 to 45% more greenhouse gases than conventional crude."

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