The Climate Impact Of Canada’s Tar Sands Is Growing


Canada Dirty Oil

CREDIT: AP/Eamon Mac Mahon

Canada’s tar sands are emitting more greenhouse gases per barrel now than they did five years ago, according to a new environmental report card.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers found per barrel greenhouse gas emissions for tar sands and other unconventional oil sources — like oil shale — have grown by 21 percent, and total emissions have grown from 90 million metric tons in 2008 to 109 million metric tons in 2012.

The increase is the result of a growth in the production of tar sands and other sources of unconventional oil and is in spite of industry attempts to reduce the energy it consumes to produce tar sands, a fuel that’s among the most energy-intensive on Earth.

The news could have implications for the U.S. government, which has yet to decide whether to approve the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. In his landmark climate address this summer, President Obama said he would only approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands crude from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, if the project “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

But even if the State Department does take the rise in Canada’s tar sands emissions into account as it finishes its final environmental impact statement for the project, it may not make a difference. In its draft EIS from March, the State Department said Keystone XL would have little effect on the climate, because the tar sands would be developed with or without the pipeline — a claim that was contested by the Environmental Protection Agency and many environmental groups.

The rise in tar sands emissions comes on the heels of government predictions that Canada won’t be able to meet its 2020 targets for overall greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Under the Copenhagen Accord, Canada has pledged to reduce its emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. That means it has to cut its emissions to 612 million metric tons by 2020, a goal that Environment Canada predicts will be overshot by 122 million metric tons, as Canada’s emissions are projected to rise to 734 million metric tons by 2020.

The Environment Canada report notes that, despite Canada’s expected failure to carry through on its reductions pledge, the country’s emissions would have risen to 862 million metric tons if some regulations hadn’t been put in place. But environmentalists in the country are urging the government to take more action if Canada wants to come close to reaching its goals.

“It’s time for the Harper government to change this picture before it’s too late,” P.J. Partington, an analyst at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental organization, said. “The most crucial component of a credible plan to get Canada back on track is strong regulations for the oil and gas sector.”

Canada’s projected failure to reach its goals has also earned some harsh criticism from the United Nations, which in a conference call for a new report singled out Canada as one of the main countries not doing enough to combat climate change.

“Canada doesn’t seem to fully grasp the risk that climate change poses to it and its people in its approach to climate change,” said Jennifer Morgan, a co-author of the U.N. report.