Report: Fuel from Canadian Tar Sands Significantly Dirtier Than Average

A new report commissioned by the European Commission (EC) was released this week, evaluating the different greenhouse gas emission (GHG) impacts from Canadian tar sands versus conventional sources of oil. The report reinforces years of academic studies and environmental impact statements showing tar sands being among the dirtiest sources of crude oil.    

The report, conducted by Professor Adam Brandt at Stanford University, compares the estimates from a number of recent studies and models. Among the over fifty data sources and studies referenced, some of the reports included:

  •  Two consulting reports commissioned by the Canadian Albertan government (TIAX and Jacobs Consulting)
  • Results from two separate life-cycle models (Natural Resources Canada and U.S. Department of Energy)
  • A report conducted by the U.S. DOE National Energy Technology Laboratory
  • An industry consulting report by IHS CERA
  • A number of journal publications including those conducted by the University of Toronto

The conclusion?

Average GHG emissions from tar sands are 23% higher than the average fuel currently used in Europe (i.e. 107.3 gCO2e/MJ on a well-to-wheels or lifecycle basis compared to 87.1 g/MJ for the average), with a low estimate of 13% and high estimate at 41% greater emissions. The graph below shows the GHG emission variation as a function of oil production. Brandt Graph.png

For the conventional oil emissions, the low represents production in Norway and the high end represents Nigerian crude oils where gas flaring is known to occur. For the tar sands emissions, the low and high end represents the Canadian CNRL Horizon operation and OPTI-Nexen, Long Lake operation respectively. Note that Brandt’s estimates do not include emissions from land-use change which would likely increase mining operation emissions by another 1-3% on a lifecycle.

The results come at a time when the Canadian government officials and the tar sands industry are lobbying legislators and officials in places like Washington D.C., California, the Northeast, and Europe to prevent enactment of low-carbon fuel policies that account for these emission differences. My colleague Danielle Droitsch at the Pembina Institute blogged on this earlier today.

These so-called “oil sands promotion” tours have been peppered with claims from the Canadian government that tar sands emit “only 5 to 15%” more emissions compared to the average crude oil. As I wrote about in an earlier blog, this claim is largely based on a CERA (2010) meta-analysis purporting to review the literature. Unfortunately, the CERA study lacked the transparency necessary for peer review and did not show how the numbers from primary sources were adjusted. Our review of many of the same studies showed tar sands produced 8 to 37% higher emissions compared to the U.S. average petroleum fuel.

Fortunately for policymakers, the scientific community, and the public at large, there is now another independent report conducted that transparently reviews the literature and breaks down the estimates in detail. Unlike previous reports like by CERA, it provides enough data for officials to check for themselves what the science has been showing.  In addition, the Pembina Institute has also recently published a lifecycle analysis “checklist” to help policymakers evaluate the different studies and include the different emissions that come from tar sands production.

Despite the Canadian government's claims on tar sands, one thing is now clear. Giving high-carbon intensity sources like tar sands a free pass and lower carbon score is not just bad policy, but plain wrong.  

About the Authors

Simon Mui

Director, California Vehicles and Fuels, Energy & Transportation program

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