Some Tar Sands/Oil Sands Operations Cut Upstream Emissions 35%, But Life Cycle Carbon Only 2%
A new study based on internal company data from three Alberta tar sands/oil sands operations is showing upstream emission reductions of 14 to 35% compared to past data—but no more than about a 2% drop in life cycle emissions from extraction through consumption.
The study, published in late November, “gave researchers unprecedented access to internal company data of three Alberta oil sands operations,” the Globe and Mail reports. “But the authors warn it cannot—and should not—be used to paint a sweeping picture of the entire sector.”
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The research team from the University of Calgary, University of Toronto, and Stanford University “assessed a vast array of open-source and confidential emissions data at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s Horizon project, Imperial Oil Ltd.’s Kearl site, and MEG Energy Corp.’s Christina Lake facility,” the Globe says. The purpose of the study, co-funded by Emissions Reduction Alberta and Alberta Innovates, was to assess how accurately open-source data reflects actual emissions from tar sands/oil sands facilities and emerging technologies. The researchers found only a one to four percent difference between the open-source estimates and the actual numbers.
But the Globe notes the study only covered a “tiny sliver” of the tar sands/oil sands, much less the larger Canadian fossil sector. “The plan for the next two phases is to extend research to refineries and all Alberta projects that produce 30,000 barrels or more a day.”
University of Calgary associate professor Joule Bergerson, a study co-author and Canada Research Chair in energy technology assessment, cautioned against assuming that all tar sands/oil sands operators have the same emissions profile. “Trying to generalize these results and cherry-pick and spin has always been a problem with life cycle emission results, particularly in the transportation fuel area,” she told the Globe. “The reality is that every one of these projects is very different.”
While the researchers only measured production emissions, they estimated the impacts of end users burning the fuel. That was where they concluded that a 35% improvement in the best of the three facilities translated to only a 2% cut in “well-to-wheel” emissions.
“No matter what we do in the upstream, if we’re still combusting in a vehicle, we’re still not making it to net-zero,” said University of Toronto professor and study co-author Heather MacLean.