However hard they may be trying, Canada’s tar sands/oil sands aren’t moving far enough, fast enough to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, Maclean’s magazine writes, in a painstaking analysis that separates the industry’s genuine efforts to reduce its carbon emissions and carbon intensity from its spin about delivering a low-carbon energy source.
Calgary-based reporter Jason Markusoff opens his post with Alberta producers’ bold, pre-election claim that some of their operations deliver a final product “with a smaller greenhouse impact than the oil average,” that shutting down bitumen production could mean replacing their output with a higher-carbon fuel.
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Markusoff casts the ad as part of a two-pronged industry strategy: accuse climate hawks of cherry-picking data to cast them in a bad light, and “improve their emissions record for real”. But “the latter represents a massive challenge for an industry whose production entails, in essence, burning fossil fuel to create fossil fuel.” They’re making the effort, he says, not only because the public, regulators, and investors demand it, but because burning less fossil fuel cuts their costs and boosts their bottom line.
Yet Markusoff says the Alberta oilpatch is still some distance from being able to legitimately position itself as a low-carbon option. “Trouble is, a close look at the leading comparisons of the world’s crude oil sources, assembled by governments, academics, and private sector analysts, shows that, overall, producing a barrel of crude from oil sands still emits more greenhouse gas than the average of all sources,” he writes. “The best or newest oil sands developments, whose emissions are below the mean, remain exceptions.”
Fossil executives say they’ll keep trying. But “given the challenges of creating oil out of northern Alberta’s sludge-like petroleum deposits—compared to the easy-flowing reserves in Texas or Saudi Arabia—making oil sands a cleaner option will require a sustained and lengthy effort. Some developments may never get to that point. And given that the sector’s objective is to produce more barrels of oil, even new efﬁciencies may not be enough to prevent its overall carbon footprint from expanding.”
“We have deﬁnitely come a long way. The oil sands is a story about innovation, and they keep innovating,” said Pembina Institute Senior Analyst Benjamin Israel. But in a world that needs a fast track to decarbonization, “we don’t have time anymore for incremental improvements. We need breakthrough improvements if we want to stay competitive in a low-carbon world.”
Markusoff says he’s getting the same message from the investment community, with analyst Kevin Birn, vice-president for North American crude markets at IHS Markit, reporting a rapid uptick in the questions about the industry’s carbon footprint that he fields from investors. “Three years ago, I’d get a call every six months,” he said. “Last year it was once a quarter, and this year it was once a month.”
Fossils like to cite a report in which Birn pointed to a 21% drop in the industry’s carbon intensity between 2009 and 2017, and predicted another 20% cut by 2030.
However, as we often point out in The Mix, carbon intensity is a measure of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of a product produced. With tar sands/oil sands producers hoping for a massive increase in production through 2040, and some federal and provincial politicians egging them on, steady carbon intensity cuts won’t get the job done in a world that needs to reduce emissions 45% by 2030  and largely finish the process of decarbonizing by mid-century.
“Absolute emissions, it is important to note, will still rise, due to ramped up extraction, at a time when Canada has committed to substantial reduction,” Markusoff writes.
The other issue is the life cycle emissions that occur when any fossil fuel product reaches its intended market. “Seventy to 80% of oil’s life-cycle carbon emissions happen when the fuel itself is burned—so while this measurement is generally a more precise gauge of a certain oil type’s overall carbon toll, it underplays the wide emissions disparities between the production of the world’s light oil and the heavier varieties common in Venezuela, Mexico, and Canada’s oil sands,” Markusoff notes.
In 2018, a Stanford University paper that compared 8,966 oilfields in 90 countries ranked Canada fourth-highest for carbon intensity. None of the 34 tar sands/oil sands projects in the study showed up below the industry average, 10 came in at double the midpoint, and five were triple or higher. Co-author Joule Bergerson, a chemical petroleum engineering professor at the University of Calgary, said tar sands/oil sands producers generally fall in the top quartile of global fossil producers for emissions intensity.
“Our best is better than most in the heavy oil category,” she told Maclean’s, “but the worst on the high end.”