tarsands-redux-30.jpg

Alberta Oilsands Most Carbon Intensive Crude in North America: Analysis

This article originally appeared on the Pembina Institute website.

Over the past 50 years, the development of the oilsands has changed the face of Alberta, driving innovation and technology to make oilsands a reality. The oilsands are the third largest oil reserve on earth, and despite a cycle of boom and busts, contribute to the prosperity of the province. Industry, however, has not addressed many of the largest environmental impacts generated by the oilsands, and much work is still left to be done. This blog is part of a series where we look back at the last 50 years of the oilsands industry and shed light on a number of the remaining challenges.

After 50 years of production, the oilsands remain among the world’s most carbon intensive large-scale crude oil operations. Studies continue to back this up.

The Carnegie Endowment’s Oil-Climate Index suggests most oilsands crude is associated with 31 per cent more emissions than the average North-American crude from the point of extraction through its lifecycle to the point of end use (See Figure 1).

Figure 1. Emissions associated with the full lifecycle of a crude (from extraction to combustion) for a selection of crudes produced in North America

When looking at the carbon pollution associated with the extraction and processing, the Oil-Climate Index suggests that the oilsands generate 2.2 times as many emissions per barrel than the average crude extracted in North America (See Figure 2).

Figure 2. Emissions associated with the extraction and processing for a selection of crudes produced in North America

The latest data on carbon emissions associated solely with oilsands extraction indicate little improvement over time. Industry likes to celebrate the changes it implemented to reduce emissions and waste, but the greatest of those were one-off advances in emissions intensity nearly 20 years ago.

Since then, the emission intensity from oilsands extraction increased nine per cent between 2004 and 2015, as illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Emissions intensity of oilsands extraction between 2004 and 2015

In short, the emission intensity of mining operations increased by seven per cent  between 2004 and 2015, and this trend will certainly continue as producers access deeper, lower quality bitumen and the distance from mines to processing facilities increases.

Although in situ operations’ emission intensity decreased by eight per cent between 2004 and 2015, this production type still produces 58 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions than surface mining. Because in situ has become the dominant form of extraction and has a higher intensity than mining, the overall emissions intensity of the sector continues to grow.

Data sources

  • Emission intensities from North-American crudes are sourced from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Oil-Climate Index, “Viewing total emissions,” 2016.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions are sourced from Environment and Climate Change Canada, National Inventory Report 1990-2015: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada,  Table A10–2, 2017.
  • Bitumen production is sourced from Alberta Environment and Parks, Oil Sands Information Portal, “Total Oil Sands Production Graph.”

Image: Alberta oilsands. Photo: Kris Krug

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

Feds propose to protect critical spotted owl habitat 1,000 times the size of Stanley Park

Twenty-one years after the spotted owl was listed as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, on Thursday the federal government released a proposed recovery...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a big story. Sign up for free →
An illustration, in yellow, of a computer, with an open envelope inside it with letter reading 'Breaking news.'
Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a major investigation. Want in? Sign up for free to get the inside scoop on The Narwhal’s environment and climate reporting.
Hey, are you on our list?
An illustration, in yellow, of a computer, with an open envelope inside it with letter reading 'Breaking news.'
Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a major investigation. Want in? Sign up for free to get the inside scoop on The Narwhal’s environment and climate reporting.
Hey, are you on our list?
An illustration, in yellow, of a computer, with an open envelope inside it with letter reading 'Breaking news.'