PLANT

Oil sands not as dirty as some assert


February 18, 2010
by PLANT Staff

Muskeg River and Shell Albian tailing pond.

Photo: Global Forest Watch Canada

Don’t blame Alberta’s oil sands for the lion’s share of Canada’s rising greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). A Conference Board of Canada report says there’s a need for improvement in every link of the energy value chain, and that includes vehicles.

In 2007, road transportation in Canada accounted for 137 million tonnes (Mt) of emissions or 18% of Canada’s total. Oil sands production accounted for 40 Mt or 5 per cent.

Getting the Balance Right: The Oil Sands, Exporting and Sustainability offers a detailed look at the oil sands and its various environmental impacts, and recommends that a comprehensive climate change plan must strike a balance between energy producers and consumers.

“The perceived Achilles heel of the oil sands is its higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions. But on a wells-to-wheels basis, oil sands are not significantly dirtier than oil from many other global sources,” says Calgary-based Len Coad, director, environment, energy and transportation policy, and co-author of the report.

Don Thompson, head of the industry-funded Oil Sands Developers Group, says US and Canadian demand will be satisfied from somewhere. “The reality is right now the carbon footprint of crudes delivered from the oil sands are about the same as the average crude oil imported and consumed by the US.”

But Simon Dyer, oil sands program director for the Pembina Institute, an Edmonton-based environmental think-tank, says there are other environmental issues that pose a greater threat in the short term, such as the huge tailing ponds that hold the toxic wastewater that comes from oil sands processing plants.

Production to double
“Most of the people interested in dealing with greenhouse gases aren’t seeking to single out the oil sands,” he says. “They’re just asking the oil sands to do their fair share, and currently that’s not happening.”

The report says GHGs per barrel from oil sands crude are between 7% and 21% higher than the lowest-emitting crude oil refined in the US.

Coad told PLANT even with the uncertainty of the economic downturn, current industry and governments forecast oil sands production to double over the next 10 years. “[The oil sands industry] has actually reduced emissions intensity over the past 20 years, but total emissions continue to grow. That’s part of the environmental price paid for using energy in our society.”