Executive Summary

Contributed by Robert Lyman ©2021

Those who believe the thesis that human greenhouse gas emissions are causing catastrophic climate change sometimes refer to oil as “dirty” because its consumption produces GHG emissions. They further claim that the crude oil produced from Canada’s oil sands is the dirtiest, because, in their view, it has the highest “carbon intensity” (CI).

With every breath that you exhale, you release almost 40,000 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2). In other words, if you accepted the premise that CO2 was dirty, then you personally, and all other human beings, are dirty “polluters”. This, of course, is nonsense.

The measurement of the carbon intensity of groups of crudes oils across different countries is difficult, and gives rise to much misunderstanding and misconception. A widely cited 2018 paper that compared GHG intensities of crude oils produced in fifty countries showed Canada’s crude oil production to have, on average, the fourth highest emissions intensity in the world. That is, if one ignored the error bars showing the uncertainties surrounding such estimates. If one took the uncertainties into account, Canadian crude oil GHG emissions cannot be distinguished, with any statistical certainty, from the crudes produced in 31 of the top 50 oil producing countries.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) uses an elaborate modelling approach to measure the GHG emissions intensity of all the crude oils refined in the state. CARB has found that the carbon intensity of the crude oils produced from Alberta’s oil sands region are comparable to many of the crude oils produced in California and Venezuela, and far below some of the crude oils produced in Nigeria. Nonetheless, there have been no well-publicized and orchestrated campaigns to boycott, shut in, or discourage funding of the competing crude oil sources.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada data, the intensity of oil sands operations themselves has declined steadily from 119 kg CO2 eq per barrel in 1990 to 78 kg CO2 eq per barrel in 2018. The emissions intensity in the oil sands has continued to decline as the industry has reduced the fuel combustion requirements per barrel of oil extracted.

According to HIS Markit, the average emissions intensity of oil sands extraction has fallen 21 per cent since 2009. Oil sands life-cycle emissions are nearing North American average values. Further, by 2030, new technologies and efficiencies deployed in the oil sands could result in a reduction of up to 27 per cent in the GHG intensity of steam-assisted gravity drainage operations and up to 20 per cent for oil sands mining operations.

To place this in national and global contexts, in 2018 the oil sands contributed about 11.5% of Canada’s GHG emissions and about 0.1% of global emissions. The oil sands annual emissions of about 84 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2018 are less than half of China’s annual increase in emissions of 192 million tonnes over the period 2009 to 2019.

Or put more simply, in 2018 the total GHG emissions from the oil sands were 84 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. That is one ninth of Canada’s emissions. Every year, China’s emissions grow more than twice that amount.

About the Author

Robert Lyman is an economist with 27 years’ experience as an analyst, policy advisor and manager in the Canadian federal government, primarily in the areas of energy, transportation, and environmental policy. He was also a diplomat for 10 years. Subsequently he has worked as a private consultant conducting policy research and analysis on energy and transportation issues as a principal for Entrans Policy Research Group. He is a frequent contributor of articles and reports for Friends of Science, a Calgary-based independent organization concerned about climate change-related issues. He resides in Ottawa, Canada. Full bio.