Tar Sands: Why Alberta Has A Credibility Problem

It’s clear that the Alberta government has a credibility problem regarding tar sands. After years of academic and government studies showing tar sands being significantly dirtier than conventional sources of crude, they’ve now unleashed a wave of oil industry consultant studies. These industry consulting studies attempt to show emissions from producing unconventional petroleum sources like Canadian tar sands aren't as bad as the science shows.

Time after time, however, the reports still show that global warming pollution from tar sands are higher -- often significantly higher -- than what the U.S. currently uses. At a time when the U.S. is trying to reduce the environmental impacts from our oil dependency, Alberta and the oil industry are trying to sell us on how clean their tar sands product really is.

The latest salvo from oil industry comes from IHS CERA's "Oil Sands, Greenhouse Gases, and the US Oil Supply," purporting that a review of the literature shows "only" 5-15% higher emissions. Putting aside for the moment that even CERA's range is actually significant -- for instance, the entire U.S. biofuels mandate of 36 billion gallons by 2022 will result in only 3% lower carbon-intensity in our fuel pool -- there is another big problem here. How did IHS CERA actually come up with this range?

The answer is: it's really hard to tell. I've personally asked IHS CERA to be more transparent in their meta-analysis and how they converted these estimates from the literature. Earlier this summer, NRDC surveyed the results from published studies and  showed that the results show a much higher and wider range of emissions. The link is here.


When we take the primary source numbers from literature, the range shown is  actually 8 to 37% higher in carbon-intensity compared to the 5 to 15% range given by CERA. So what gives? I've tried to figure this out and as far as I can tell from the limited information from the CERA study, the difference is due to:

  • Their lower end range (5%) is actually a mixed barrel of tar sands and a low-carbon source (natural gas condensates called diluent), lowering the apparent impact of a barrel of tar sands. This is like mixing a dirty fuel and a clean fuel and saying you can now ignore the dirty fuel's impacts. Unfortunately, that's not how environmental impacts and emissions work.  
  • The study doesn't account for the fact that in-situ production (a process that heats up the ground to extract bitumen) is expected to be the dominant source of tar sands over time. In-situ production generally results in emissions on the higher end of the 8 to 37% increase. There is real reason to believe that the tar sands industry emissions will only increase over time absent a clear carbon signal.
  • They leave out important parts of the life-cycle impacts, such as energy inputs into the facility that can have significant emissions themselves, as well as land-use impacts. For instance, natural gas is one of the primary inputs to these facilities yet they do not include the emissions associated with producing that natural gas.  
  • They appear to leave out venting, flaring, and fugitive emissions which can be high particularly for mining processes.
  • Emissions from land use change aren't accounted for in CERA's study and many of the others. Large tracts of land are dug up or altered. Particularly in the cases when Boreal forests and peatlands are lost, the emission releases can be significant and need to be included. 

I'd like to see the CERA report be more transparent and show how they adjusted numbers from the primary literature sources to get at their range. I'd also like them to include the emission sources that have been identified as missing from their estimates. Until then, Alberta tar sands and oil industry will continue to have the same credibility problems that have plagued them for years.