The Real Story: Rising Climate Emissions From Tar Sands

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, NRDC
Posted on Tuesday 3rd August 2010

The latest line from the Canadian government is that tar sands greenhouse gas emissions are going down. This is misleading to say the least. The real story, as told by the Pembina Institute in a recent briefing note, is that tar sands is a dirty business that no amount of greenwashing can make appear clean.

Let’s take a closer look at what Canada claims: In a July 8 letter responding to concerns raised in Congress over the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, the Canadian Ambassador said that “Emissions per barrel from oil sands production – which have declined in intensity by 39% between 1990 and 2008 – now compare favourably to heavy crude from California and Venezuela.” He also claimed that they were “addressing land and water use issues” in the tar sands.

Taking these claims one by one shows a very different story from the rosy picture that Canada is trying to paint:

Canada claims that greenhouse gas emissions per barrel have declined in intensity by 39% between 1990 and 2008. This is true, but not the real story. The real story is that with overall production expansion, overall greenhouse gas emissions have go up, not down. When we look at actual emissions between 1990 and 2008, we see that they more than doubled, increasing by 121%.

The real story is that greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands production are rising rapidly and will triple between 2008 and 2020. The improvements in intensity touted by the Alberta government are in reality the result of fuel-switching in the early 2000’s. Since this time, there have not been improvements and we do not expect more to be made. Tar sands production is moving towards increased “in situ” development where the bitumen is heated underground to make it liquid enough to pump out. Even more energy intensive than strip-mining, as in situ tar sands development increases, so will industry wide greenhouse gas emissions. And the tar sands oil industry overall is not showing an inclination to put carbon capture and sequestration in place. To make the situation worse, Alberta has proposed standards that would allow tar sands operations to use dirtier sources of fuel potentially leading to a 66 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions per barrel.

Canada claims that tar sands greenhouse gas emissions now compare favorably to heavy crude from California and Venezuela. This is not true. In making this comparison, Canada is relying on flawed studies as we discussed in an earlier blog. These studies do not rely on actual emissions data and use a number of tricks such as using diluted tar sands and only comparing to the heaviest of other oils to have the comparison favor tar sands. Even so, these studies still show tar sands to have the highest greenhouse gas emissions over their lifecycle. But the real story is that the gap between tar sands and conventional oil is wider than the Canadian government is claiming.

Canada touts its commitment to reach 17% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2010 and implies that car and truck emissions standards will help reach this target. However, low stringency and loopholes in the draft regulations mean that business-as-usual is likely to continue until 2016 or even later. And, the Pembina Institute calculates that with the continuation of business-as-usual, Canada's emissions will actually be 28% above 2005 levels by 2020 with tar sands expansion accounting for nearly half of that projected increase.

Canada dismisses the many other environmental concerns with tar sands oil production by saying it is also addressing land and water use issues. Yet, the documented water pollution, air pollution, land destruction and fragmentation, impact on migratory birds and downstream rising rates of cancers are all very real and not being adequately addressed by the oil industry nor by the governments of Alberta and Canada.

However Canada tries to build a public relations campaign to say otherwise, the real story of tar sands is one of rising greenhouse gas emissions, boreal forest destruction and concerns about rising cancer rates. And as NRDC’s executive director pointed out in his blog, even if we could waive a magic wand and clean up the tar sands themselves, we’d still be left with the concerns in the United States about the safety of tar sands pipelines, the increase of pollution from U.S. refineries switching to tar sands, and the greenhouse gas emissions from continuing to depend on tar sands oil in our gas tanks. The solution is not to greenwash tar sands. The solution is to stop our addiction to oil by increasing fuel efficiency standards, building smarter transportation solutions, and moving towards the power of wind and sun for our transportation needs.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard.

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz is Director of NRDC's International Program. The Natural Resources Defense Council is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the environment, people and animals. NRDC was founded in 1970 and is comprised of more than 300 lawyers, scientists and policy experts, with more than one million members and e-activists.

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