Oil Sands Watch | Pembina Institute



Of Oil Sands and Inconvenient Truths

I start my mornings with a cup of coffee and a quick scan of the headlines to see what's at play in the world of energy and the environment. Hey, it's my job. Like me, you probably saw the oil sands headlines again this week, spurred on by a quip from former American Vice President Al Gore. He said, "Gas from the tar sands gives a Prius the same carbon footprint as a Hummer."

Not surprisingly, the Alberta government has responded in-kind: Premier Stelmach called Gore's assertions "preposterous" and labeled greenhouse gas pollution from coal-fired electricity, both in the United States and in Alberta, as "the elephant in the room." And David Sands, the Public Affairs Bureau's chief defender of Alberta's oil sands in the blogosphere and on Twitter, quickly called Gore out on the math behind his Prius vs. Hummer sound bite.

While the government concludes the impact isn't as bad as going from a Prius to a Hummer, their math still shows that the oil sands are worse. If the best result that can be mustered is "worse, but less worse than critics suggest," we have a problem. It really is an uphill battle for Alberta to suggest this response is good enough when scientists are telling us we must do much more to reduce greenhouse gas pollution to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

The crux of the issue is that the Alberta government's approach to addressing greenhouse gas pollution is focused on modest improvements in pollution intensity. We have more than a decade of evidence of just how ineffective improvements in emission intensity are in the face of rapidly expanding oil sands production. Between 1990 and 2006 total greenhouse gas pollution from the oil sands sector increased more than 200%, while over the same period Suncor reduced the emissions intensity of its oil sands operations by approximately 45%.

As a result, Environment Canada has projected that with business as usual the oil sands would be responsible for almost half of all new greenhouse gas pollution in Canada by 2020. 

But looking to the future, I'm afraid there's more bad news for the oil sands: the average greenhouse gas intensity of producing a barrel of oil sands is likely to get worse. About 80% of oil sands reserves are only accessible using in situ drilling technologies. This type of oil sands production is more energy intensive than the surface mining operations, which means that the corresponding greenhouse gas pollution emitted to produce a barrel of oil is also higher. This would be made even worse by a draft Alberta government policy that would allow in situ oil sands operations to burn even dirtier fuels than the natural gas they consume today.

Despite the promise of carbon capture and storage technology, including $2 billion in Alberta taxpayer subsidies, there is nobody in the oil sands industry who is seriously considering applying this technology to in situ oil sands operations anytime soon. A number of the companies who were considering it abandoned plans and withdrew from the competition for public subsidies in light of the economic challenges. That's right, we couldn't even pay them to try it.

So while Al Gore's math might be off, I think the symbolism of his quote is dead on: the oil sands are a dirtier source of fuel. What we need are cleaner sources of fuel.

This is an inconvenient truth that the Alberta government remains stubbornly unwilling to acknowledge let alone meaningfully address. Unless and until the Alberta government comes around on this then we face both an environmental and economic problem.

The rest of the world is moving towards a low-carbon economy and we risk being left behind.

Dan Wolfe — Nov 27, 2009 - 08:23 PM MT

Dan, I think you're missing the point, as is Mr. Gore. The difference between gasoline derived from tarsands and Saudi oil is real, but not significant, and it is counterproductive to focus so much effort and energy on it. The 'cleaner fuels' you speak of certainly don't include oil from Saudi Arabia or Iraq, and by singling out the tarsands, you are indirectly promoting those sources of energy. The tarsands are irrelevant, all sources and uses of oil are damaging to the environment - the real issue is demand for oil, since by far most of the emissions come from the end use. We need to focus on developing alternatives to oil, like electrification of the vehicle fleet and solar thermal power generation. Al Gore is in the business of convincing the world of an impending disaster, which requires impeccable credibility on his part, so he does himself a great disservice by quoting ridiculous lies as gospel truth and he should not be forgiven for it.

Government of Alberta — Nov 27, 2009 - 12:21 PM MT

Dan, thank you and Pembina for being a honest critic. 90% of what we see in the blogosphere is wildly overstated impacts such as Mr. Gore's Prius-to-Hummer sound bite, as you put it. But yes, let's look to the future. You forecast bad news. But we see a future all about lowering GHG intensities, especially in in situ drilling. You point out yourself that Suncor has cut GHG intensities by 45% - why would innovation and improvement like that suddenly stop? We appreciate Pembina, and Pembina needs to keep pushing for improvement in oil sands development, because we and industry must stay focused on that. The world is moving to green and renewable energies, but because it can't stop its need for oil today, we have to reduce and mitigate the damage of that development in the interim. - David Sands

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