Tar sands: Still dirty after all these years

X-axis is the range of potential resource in billions of barrels. Y-axis is grams of Carbon per MegaJoule of final fuel.

On Sunday, I wrote about how Lindsey Graham had drunk the tar sands Kool-Aid: “It is less carbon intensive than oil we find in California,” extraction “really blends in with the natural habitat.”

David Sands of the Government of Alberta pointed out in the comments that CERA had done a study supporting the view that that the tar sands were not overly carbon intensive. Unsurprisingly, that analysis turns out to have multiple flaws, as NRDC scientist and former EPA analyst Simon Mui explains in “Tar Sands: Why Alberta Has A Credibility Problem” (reposted below).

In fact, EPA’s unusually blunt July letter to the State Department sharply criticizing their draft Environmental Impact Statement on the 1,700 mile pipeline to bring dirty tar sands oil from Alberta to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast states:

Our calculations indicate that on an annual basis, and assuming the maximum volume of 900,000 barrels per day (bpd) of pipeline capacity, annual well-to-tank emissions from the project would be 27 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e) greater than emissions from US “average” crude. Accordingly, we estimate that GHG emissions from Canadian oil sands crude would be approximately 82% greater than the average crude refining the US, on a well-to-time basis.

It’s times like these that I remember how much I miss my friend and colleague Alex Farrell, the passionate analyst. He’s the one I would normally turn to to debunk CERA’s report. He did the best analysis of the climate risks of unconventional oil I know of, “Risks of the oil transition” and is the source of the outstanding figure above.


The tar sands are GHG-intensive. Yes, you can whip up an analysis that shows it isn’t so bad as people think compared to not-quite-conventional oil, but you have to do a lot of massaging of the data, as NRDC’s Mui explains in his critique:

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.

Also, as I’ve said many times, a full lifecycle analysis of a kind that is rarely done would draw the circle large enough to include the opportunity cost of the natural gas. Canada is diverting a considerable amount of its natural gas resources to extract and process the tar sands. That natural gas could be used to shut down Canadian and US coal plants, reducing their emissions by some two thirds. Even if the tar sands had CCS, you’d still be wasting vast amounts of natural gas and creating an immense “opportunity carbon cost.” As long as people are burning massive amounts of coal, natural gas is simply too precious a carbon-reducing fuel to waste on making another carbon-intensive fuel like the output of the tar sands.


The Catholic bishop whose diocese extends over the tar sands posted a scathing pastoral letter last year — see Canadian bishop challenges the “moral legitimacy” of tar sands production — which notes the “environmental liabilities that result from the various steps in this process are significant and include”:

  • Destruction of the boreal forest eco-system
  • Potential damage to the Athabasca water shed
  • The release of greenhouse gases
  • Heavy consumption of natural gas
  • The creation of toxic tailings ponds

Daily Kos notes a “ just-published report of significant surface water contamination associated with tar sands extraction”:

Research published online yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that 13 elements classified as priority pollutants (PPEs) by the US Environmental Protection Agency were found in the Athabasca River in the province of Alberta1. Seven of these were present at high enough concentrations to put aquatic life at risk. The findings are also of concern to human health….

He and his team found that there were higher concentrations of PPEs in the Athabasca River downstream of tailing ponds and other tar sands development infrastructure, and in areas downstream of watersheds stripped of soil and vegetation in preparation for mining, than there were at sites upstream of mining projects.

No surprise, then the Toronto Star reported last week, “Deformed fish found in lake downstream from oilsands”:

The fish are hard to look at.One whitefish has a golfball-sized tumour bulging from its side. Another is simply missing part of its spine, its tail growing from a stumpy rear end.

One has no snout. Another is coloured a lurid red instead of a healthy cream. Others are covered with lesions and still others are bent and crooked from deformed vertebrae.

All were taken from Lake Athabasca, downstream from the oilsands in northern Alberta, and were on display Thursday. All are reasons, say a group of scientists and aboriginals, for the federal government to conduct an independent study on what’s happening to the

I’ll spare you the many grotesque photos, but you can look at a bunch here:

A Smoking Gun on Athabasca River: Deformed Fish

Top water ecologist cites evidence of extreme pollution near oil sands.

I’m reminded of my 2008 post, “Gates and Buffett to invest in tar sands and spawn more two-headed fish?

The tar sands are a dirty business.

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