Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2019
Robert Lyman is an Ottawa energy policy consultant, former public servant of 27 years and prior to that he was a diplomat for 10 years.
In 1999, there was a famous episode on the U.S. television animated series, South Park, in which a dowdy teacher harangued her class with the explanation of all that is going wrong in the world. “Blame Canada” she cried, and the class took it up with a rousing musical refrain.
I am reminded of the absurdity of that episode, if not its sense of humour, by the present tendency of municipalities in some regions to sue Canadian oil companies for the alleged economic damages of global warming. The whole claim rests on a mountain of false assumptions and misjudgements, but I would like to examine just one set of them – the claim that it is oil producers in one country, Canada, that are responsible for global greenhouse gas emissions rising.
At the heart of this allegation is the assumption that oil-related emissions of greenhouse gases, as measured in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), are the main sources of global emissions. Let’s examine that in terms of the emissions from the most widely used refined oil product, motor gasoline, throughout its life cycle. This is what is called a “wells to wheels” analysis.
The estimates of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions on this basis have been changing over the past two decades as a result of intense study of the issue by various governments in Canada and the United States.
Fifteen years ago, the rule-of-thumb calculation was that, of the roughly 100 grams of CO2 equivalent per megajoule produced wells to wheels for gasoline in the United States, 15% was attributable to exploration, production, transportation, refining and marketing and 85% was due to final combustion in the vehicle.
After 2007, due to more detailed analysis carried out largely by the California Air Resources Board and its consultants, the percentages, on average, were revised to:
Crude exploration and production: 8%
Crude and product transport: 1.5 %
Crude refining: 13%
Final combustion: 78%
Thus, the entire “upstream” portion of the oil-to-gasoline life cycle is now considered to constitute 22%, and the final consumption by the motorist constitutes 78%, or almost four-fifths. So, if one accepts the thesis that we should blame someone for oil-related emissions, who is it – the producers, refiners, or consumers? Consumers, of course, are not easy to sue.
In around 2006, a number of U.S. private foundations began a well-funded systematic campaign to vilify the Alberta oil sands, a campaign that some researchers in Canada have tracked in terms of the financing provided to environmental non-governmental organizations here. The “war” on oil sands resulted in significantly more attention to the emissions associated with different types of crude oil, and claims that gasoline produced in the United States using Canadian synthetic crude oil produced up to 45% more CO2 emissions than that produced using conventional crude oil.
In 2009, Jacob Consultancy completed a study for the Alberta Energy Research Institute in which it delved in far greater detail into the GHG emissions at each stage of the production to consumption cycle for crude oils consumed in the United States. The following PowerPoint presentation, delivered in 2011, summarizes the results.
One of the most interesting of the study findings was that there are a wide range of emissions associated with the many different domestic and foreign crude oils sold in the United States, and that natural gas flaring during production was of unexpected importance in differentiating among the different crude CO2 emission levels. In fact, the studies concluded that Canadian oil produced by mining and SAGD methods produce on average about 10% more, or 10 grams CO2 per megajoule more, than gasoline produced using the average of U.S. domestic and imported market crudes. CA TEOR, a type of heavy California crude oil produced by enhanced recovery, produces higher emissions than the oil sands crude.
Canadian oil producers have been making considerable progress in reducing the energy intensity of their production techniques. According to a recent report on the Natural Resources Canada website, GHG emissions per barrel of oil produced in the oil sands have fallen by 29% since 2000.
The “bottom line”, I would suggest, is that close to 80% of the CO2 equivalent emissions from oil occur at the final consumption (i.e. combustion) stage, so that is where environmental zealots or the municipalities that wish to support them should focus their blame.
A few final comments about context would seem to be justified. According to the National Inventory of GHG emissions published by Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canada’s emissions in 2016 were 722 megatonnes. All emissions from transportation, including road, rail, marine and aviation modes were 173 megatonnes, and those from all passenger road vehicles were 93 megatonnes. So, the fuel consumption by Canada’s fleet of light duty vehicles (cars, SUVs and pickup trucks) constitutes 12.9 % of Canada’s GHG emissions. You could eliminate every one of them, and leave us all dependent on walking, cycling and horses, and you would only get slightly over one third of the way to Canada’s 30 % emissions reduction target by 2030.
Even that would not cause a ripple in the ever-growing tide of global emissions. Blame Canada?