Studies Confirm Tar Sands Dirtiest of Dirty Oils

Once again, the Alberta government is using its $25 million public relations pot to mislead the public. Today, Alberta is touting the results of two new studies about tar sands greenhouse gas emissions as showing that tar sands production is no worse than other oil production. This headline is misleading and incorrect - even by the analysis in these studies. Even worse, this headline shows a continued attempt by Alberta to greenwash the tar sands oil production through public relations rather than focusing on the real and many environmental problems and fixing them.

Today, the Alberta government released what they called two "independent" reports comparing direct emissions from the tar sands to those from other crude oils. The Alberta government claimed in its press notice that the reports found direct emissions from producing, transporting and refining oil sands crude are in the same range as those of other crudes refined in the U.S. The Life-Cycle Analysis of North American and Imported Crude Oils released by the Alberta Energy Research Institute is based on two reports from energy consulting firms in the U.S.: Jacobs Consultancy and TIAX LLC.

The sad irony is that Alberta called a press event to declare that some of their best tar sands may be only slightly worse than the dirtiest conventional oils. While at least they aren't hiding this fact, it hardly seems to vindicate the industry from the large environmental footprint they are making and will continue to make. Nor can they hide the fact that much of their tar sands have greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 20% to over 30% higher than the middle of the range crude oil, according to the TIAX report as well as the peer-reviewed science. The two reports have many problems - problems that were raised by NRDC and others and ignored by the authors. Just to name a few, the different results and the discrepancies between them haven't been addressed and the studies are based on theoretical data rather than real operating data.

Even more importantly, the right comparison to make is actually not the dirtiest conventional oil, but the cleanest fuels. The Alberta government and tar sands industry have a lot of work ahead of them to clean up their industry, and it's no surprise that they are resisting tooth-and-nail any system that forces them to compete with other clean fuels.  The average fuel pool will only get cleaner over time because the U.S. and California are moving to low carbon fuels such as advanced biofuels, natural gas, and electricity. So while the Alberta government works to lower the bar, the rest of the world is raising the bar for the oil industry to produce cleaner fuels. 

Once again, Alberta is focused more on spin and public relations than on identifying problems with the tar sands and putting solutions in place to fix these problems. High greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands oil production is an acknowledged problem. Yet instead of addressing these high emissions, Alberta is defending its dirty oil with half-baked reports. And if these reports are supposed to be independent, why is the Government of Alberta the one to be holding the press conference and why were they not put through a rigorous peer-review process? Are these reports just part of Alberta's $25 million public relations campaign to greenwash the tar sands?

The bottomline is that tar sands extraction greenhouse gas emissions are high and with tar sands oil production expanding, it is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. And what is more - depending on expansion of tar sands oil locks us into burning this fuel in our gas tanks. And it is from our gas tanks that the highest emissions come. What we need is to change our dependence on oil - from any source - to a dependence on other transportation solutions. The United States is trying to move in this direction. We should not allow debates about the production emissions from tar sands oil to distract us from the larger goals of curbing global warming and building a clean energy economy. Especially a dirty source of fuel such as the tar sands has no place in a clean energy economy.

My colleague Simon Mui has put time into analyzing greenhouse gas emissions from the tar sands. He makes the following excellent points about the AERI studies:

Technical Points:

These two studies come out at the lower end of the current range in the peer reviewed literature

  • These two new studies funded by the Albertan Government (AERI) appear to come out at the low end of most life cycle assessment (LCA) estimates. The studies have not been peer reviewed.
  • All peer-reviewed studies show that tar sand emissions are higher relative to the average conventional crude oils. (Source: NRDC Tar Sands LCA White Paper, December 2008)
  • Three separate U.S. government analyses (EPA, DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory, DOE's Argonne National Laboratory) have already shown that emissions from Canadian tar sands are significantly higher than the U.S. crude oil average.
  • The Canadian government's own lifecycle model (GHGenius) shows that emissions from mined bitumen being 13 to 16% higher on a lifecycle basis than the U.S. average gasoline baseline and in-situ being 20 to 27% higher on a lifecycle basis.

The baseline used for the comparison appears to be skewed to the dirtier conventional crude oils

  • In the TIAX study, four (4) out of the nine (9) conventional crudes selected for comparison to tar sands are heavy oils (which are known to have higher associated production emissions). The only light crude oil selected is Nigerian crude oil, which is known to have enormous flaring emissions due to the lack of political stability and governance.
  • The Jacobs study shows conventional crude oil emissions being significantly  higher (~ 10%) than others studies, including the average U.S. baseline determined by U.S. EPA and separately by U.S. DOE. The conventional crude values are also very different from the TIAX results. These anomalies between the reports suggest that the Albertan government's conclusion "that they are comparable" is misleading. Their studies show that one report's conventional crude range is 10% higher than the other report's conventional crude range.
  • The Jacobs consulting report claims that comparing against one generic "conventional crude" is unfair, implying that there is a problem. However, the comparisons for the LCFS and RFS have been in reference to a weighted, fuel mix of crude oils from a specific baseline year, not a single conventional crude oil (i.e. the California weighted average for 2010, and the U.S. weighted average for 2005, respectively).

Some important emissions were not considered.

  • Neither the TIAX nor the Jacobs report considers the release of carbon associated with tar sand large disturbances to peatlands, forests, and soil. The studies do not account for direct land use change emissions from tar sands associated with both mining and in-situ practices. Inclusion of these emissions would increase emissions relative to conventional crude oils.
  • The Jacobs report does not consider the methane emissions from the enormous, toxic tailing ponds created by tar sand operations.
  • Work by University of California and University of Calgary presented at the 2009 IAEE International Conference in San Francisco suggests that land use and tailing emissions may result in an additional 3.7 to 44 million tones of GHG emissions by 2030.

The use of theoretical data for projects not in operation is problematic

  • Data for the studies (TIAX) relies on theoretical data for projects not in operation. Larger, more established facilities that currently are in production have been unwilling to provide actual project data.
  • For the TIAX study, only one theoretical project data submission was used to represent the entire mining category (CNRL Horizon) as opposed to data from Suncor and Syncrude which are currently in operation.
  • For the Jacobs study, it does not appear that publically available operator data or project application data was used

Even small differences in crude oil emissions can significantly offset future reductions from programs such as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard or Renewable Fuels Standard

  • Significant effort is needed to reduce emission by 10% in California by 2020 under the low carbon fuel standard. These studies appear to downplay differences between tar sands and other conventional crude oils. However, an increase in emissions of just 10% in half the crude oil pool would offset half the benefits of the LCFS and all the benefits of the federal Renewable Fuels Standard.

The Jacobs study makes the claim that if full credit for electricity generation were taken, emissions from tar sands would be lower than conventional crude oils.

  • This is a hypothetical case now, but the industry should be looking for ways to reduce emissions from their direct fuel emissions as opposed to offset it by exporting electricity. In all likelihood the operations are displacing their own electricity needs (natural gas cogeneration) with natural gas cogeneration and not the average Alberta grid (which is mainly coal-based power). So should you be able to generate credits for displacing electricity use from your own industry if its not additional? And will it really count as addition are reductions once you have carbon policy on the electricity sector in Alberta anyhow?

About the Authors

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz

Chief Program Officer

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