Oil is dirty, from oil sands or otherwise

Environmental Capital reacts with skepticism to two new reports (funded by the Alberta Energy Research Institute, not a disinterested party given that Alberta is the epicenter of oil sands production) that say that petroleum from oil sands only emits about 10% more greenhouse gases than other sources:
That’s not because the much-maligned oil sands are getting cleaner (though there’s plenty of scope for just that, the reports say). Rather, it’s because newer studies scrutinize more closely the environmental footprint of crude production everywhere else, from Nigeria to Venezuela, which is more energy-intensive than the easy-to-extract oil in Saudi Arabia.

In other words, everything’s getting dirtier — so Canada’s oil sands don’t look so bad in comparison. The clean-energy think tank Pembina Institute responded: “Rather than lowering the bar by comparing oil sands to other pollution-intensive sources of oil, we should be assessing how the oil sands compare with technologies like advanced biofuels and electric vehicles.”
Sounds nefarious, but I actually come down on the side of the reports here, because I have seen the same results elsewhere. The key simple truth is that most petroleum emissions come from the combustion of the refined product (gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, fuel oil, etc.). If we say combustion emissions are 100%, oil sands production adds about 15% on top of that, whereas more traditional production methods average out to about 5% extra. So the difference is 115% vs. 105%, or about 10%.

Pembina’s recommendation should be broadened – we should compare ALL oil (not just oil sands) to other energy technologies. But we should 1), be objective in how we assess the results (for example, if land use change is taken into account, corn ethanol may emit as much as oil sands); 2), keep in mind that many of these technologies are not yet deployable at commercial scale; and 3), recognize that, carbon price adjustments like cap-and-trade aside, energy consumption decisions will be driven overwhelmingly by the raw economics, not environmental considerations.

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