Oil sands not as dirty as some assert

January 14, 2010   by PLANT STAFF

Stack emissions from oil sands processing plants.

Photo: Global Forest Watch

OTTAWA: Don’t blame just Alberta’s oil sands for the Canada’s rising greenhouse gas emissions. A new 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,” said Calgary-based Len Coad, the Conference Board’s director, environment, energy and transportation policy, and co-author of the report. 

It 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] have actually reduced emissions intensity over the past 20 years, but total emissions continue to grow. That’s part of the environmental price to be paid for using energy in our society.”

He says Canada and the US will continue to rely on oil products for the foreseeable future, and the oil sands offer advantages as a preferred supplier for North America.   

“That being said, sustainable development of the oil sands requires a more measured pace of growth than we have seen in recent years, which would ease the labour, material and environmental pressures.”

The report emphasizes that oil sands producers must continue to develop new technologies and processes that reduce emissions during extraction. But at the same time, efforts need to be made to reduce long-term global demand for oil products—and vehicles are an important part of that consumption.  

“In the interest of even-handed treatment across economic sectors and long-term competitiveness for both Canada and the US, improvements are needed in every step of the energy value chain, and reducing emissions from vehicles must be a part of any climate change plan,” said Coad. 

Click here for a copy of the report.

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