The carbon footprint left by Canada’s oil sands has been a target of criticism for years with many environmentalists suggesting that the extraction and processing of bitumen from Alberta’s northern oil sands is “two to three times worse” for the environment than any other supply of oil on the planet. Is that legitimate criticism?
By: Lorimer Wilson
Both critics and environmental groups concede that 78% to 80% of carbon dioxide is created when fuel is burned in cars or factories or jets, regardless of where or how the crude is produced and recognize that the complicated processes used to recover bitumen make it more greenhouse-gas intensive than lighter, conventional crudes. That is the extent of their mutual understanding.
Only 5% to 10% Worse than Conventional Oil?
The government of Alberta and the synthetic crude oil industry are fighting back against such suggestions. The Alberta Energy Research Institute (AERI) and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) point out that recent analyses of the amount of greenhouse gas emissions created by oil sands crude, based on a life cycle analysis from the moment it is extracted to the moment it comes out of a tailpipe, i.e. “well-to-wheels” analysis, and other research by Jacobs Consultancy, has determined that oil sands crude is actually only 5% to 10% worse than other oil producers in their class and that, in the case of California’s heavy crude, their oil sands’ emissions level is actually even lower than that.
The report created was different from prior analyses in that it took into account parts of the production process previously omitted such as the energy required for the flaring of hydrocarbons used in the production of conventional crudes as well as the amount of water created when the bitumen is separated from the sand.
10% to 40% Worse than Conventional Oil?
Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute is quite critical of the Jacobs Consultancy report calling its statements “misleading” and “inaccurate” because the report doesn’t take into account the loss of bicarbon — the clearing of trees and peatlands — and compares oil sands bitumen to oils much heavier than conventional crude. This makes the oil sands oil “look less bad.”
In addition, Dyer said the Jacobs Consultancy results are not conclusive because they don’t use real, available data for emissions caused by “in situ” which is the more energy intensive of the two recovery methods used in the oil sands, where steam is injected deep into reserves to heat the oil and make it flow. Also, instead of collecting actual statistics from Saudi or Venezuelan suppliers, all the data in the Jacobs report is modeled with computers.
Dyer, citing research taken from other reports on greenhouse gas emissions, has calculated a “life cycle” figure that shows the emissions from oil sands as being 10% to 40% worse than conventional oil.
The disagreement between both sides of the debate continues. Both AERI and CAPP point out that the supply of conventional light crude is declining and that to compare the “worst-case scenario” of oil sands’ heaviest crude to the “best-case scenario” of the lightest conventional crude will soon no longer be relevant.
Information By The Numbers
Acoording to research and analyses by Jacobs Consultancy and the Alberta Energy Research Institute:
1. The difference in greenhouse gas emissions created through the production of oil from Alberta’s oil sands, relative to conventional oil sources: 200% to 300%
2. The difference in emissions between the two sources, when the entire “life cycle” of the oil is taken into account: 5% to 10%
3. The difference in “life cycle” emissions between the two sources, according to the Pembina Institute: 10% to 40%
4. The percentage of oil-related greenhouse gas emissions that comes from vehicle use: 78%
5. The percentage of oil-related greenhouse gas contributions that comes from crude production: 8%
6. The percentage of oil-related greenhouse gas contributions that comes from crude refining: 13%
7. The percentage of crude oil in U.S. refineries that comes from the oil sands: 11%
8. The percentage of crude oil in U.S. refineries that comes from Saudi Arabia: 9%
9. The percentage of crude oil in U.S. refineries that comes from Mexico: 9%
10. The percentage of crude oil in U.S. refineries that comes from the United States: 37%
Sources: Jacobs Consultancy; Alberta Energy Research Insitute; Rebecca Ryall’s National Post article “How Crude”.
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