Spinning the facts again on climate emissions from tar sands

An Alberta government sponsored report criticizing the European Union’s own independent analysis of climate emissions from tar sands has created a political debate but misses the science.  A study released yesterday by the Jacobs Consultancy paid for by the Government of Alberta tries to crunch numbers to make tar sands less of a climate problem but in fact cherry-picked certain facts to make tar sands production seem “cleaner.”  In fact, NRDC has shown that multiple independent studies have confirmed that Canada’s tar sands emissions are some of the most carbon-intensive oil on earth and a new study can’t change that fact.

There isn’t any secret about why the Alberta government commissioned this “new” study.  They are directly engaged in aggressive lobbying effort to European Union government who is considering whether to treat tar sands as different from conventional crude oil.  The EU is developing a clean fuels policy aimed at reducing the climate emissions from transport fuels by six percent by 2020.  As part of the development of this policy, they are identifying the climate emissions from different types of oils (or feedstocks) including  tar sands.  In short, the European Union’s own independent research (which found tar sands is 23 percent higher than a standard conventional fuel in the EU) threatens Canada’s efforts to export its carbon intensive fuel overseas.  My colleague Simon Mui reported on this EU sponsored study which reinforced how tar sands is among the dirtiest forms of crude oil anywhere on earth.

Unfortunately, the Government of Alberta study was initially released to reporters who were forbidden from soliciting a critique of the study.   The Edmonton Journal said “reporters who agreed to the embargo’s terms were barred from seeking advance third-party comment on the report before its release.”  An advance third-party comment on the report would have revealed serious concerns about the data used in the report as evidence the EU was overstating the carbon impact of tar sands.  In essence, journalists - and therefore the public - were misled about the performance of tar sands extraction process prompting one-sided stories.

According to the Pembina Institute who has conducted a detailed analysis showing the overwhelming majority of conventional crudes have substantially lower emissions than tar sands: “The [Jacobs Consultancy] study is not a comprehensive assessment of oilsands emissions, but cherry-picks examples of the very cleanest oilsands projects. The Jacobs research actually shows that the absolutely best (and least emissions-intensive) examples of Alberta’s oilsands production are still almost entirely more emissions-intensive than other oil production methods around the world. The study clearly reinforces that the oilsands are a significantly more polluting feedstock and should be treated as such by the European Union.”

Unfortunately, Canada’s intense lobbying efforts has resulted in a delay to the adoption of the EU policy and the release of this new study is part of that broader effort to undermine and further delay its implementation.   The science behind climate emissions from tar sands has unfortunately become politicized.  We can only hope the European Union will see past the political debate that unfolds after the release of reports like these and sticks to evaluating the science that confirms high greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands.    Progressive climate policies like the European Union’s clean fuels standard deserves nothing less.