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Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Tar Sands May Double By 2020

By Steven Lacey

09 August, 2011
Climate Progress

A newly-released report from the Canadian government reinforces the looming environmental impact of tar sands oil: As producers ramp up their activity, due in large part from a projected increase in demand from U.S. refineries, greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s tar sands could double by 2020 compared to 2010 levels.

In 2009, Canada signed the Copenhagen Accord and pledged to reduce GHG emissions 17% by 2020. But this peer-reviewed study from Canada’s environment ministry shows that emissions increases from the tar sands would offset any decreases that may come from cleaner electricity generation. The country will still be able to make some decreases in emissions; however, current measures will only meet about 25% of Canada’s targets.

The report is not terribly surprising. Previous analysis shows that CO2 emissions from tar sands can be more than 20-35% higher than conventional oil. But in the lead-up to a decision from the U.S. State Department on the proposed Keystone XL project — a $13 billion pipeline that would pump an extra 500,000 barrels of dirty tar sands crude from Alberta to refineries in Texas each day — the findings again illustrate the environmental impact of approving the project.

“The keystone pipeline sends a signal from Gulf Coast refineries to Alberta that ‘we’re open for business.’ Of course, that is going to drive far more production at the tar sands. And that’s a sad story from a climate perspective, because we’re talking about unlocking a lot of new emissions,” says Ryan Salmon, an energy policy advisor at the National Wildlife Foundation, in an interview with Climate Progress.

Even with the immense local and global environmental impacts of increasing production at the tar sands, the Canadian government has been pushing hard for the Keystone XL pipeline. Last month, a diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks showed that a former U.S. State Department official had coached Canadian officials on how to ensure more positive media coverage of the project.

On the U.S. side, energy companies involved with the project have been touting the economic benefits, claiming that the increased crude capacity would drive down fuel costs for consumers. However, there are serious doubts about whether Americans would even see a drop in fuel prices.

The Keystone XL pipeline would bypass mid-western refineries and go straight to the Gulf Coast, allowing companies to sell the fuel off on the global market. For example, Shell is reportedly increasing its refining capacity in the Gulf from 275,000 barrels to 600,000 barrels – a refinery that is half owned by a state-run oil company from Saudi Arabia. That is raising suspicions about where the fuel is really going.

“The idea that this is fuel for America, that it will improve our energy security, is a mirage. It’s going to go to refineries, some owned by Saudi interests, and get sold off on the global market. It’s a way to connect Canadian crude producers to more refining, and easier access to the world market,” says NFW’s Salmon. “Is that really benefiting us?”

It will certainly be a boon for Gulf Coast refiners and companies operating in Alberta’s tar sands. But it may not help the American consumer — and it definitely won’t help the Canadian government reduce emissions.

Stephen Lacey is a reporter/blogger for Climate Progress, where he writes on clean energy policy, technologies, and finance. Before joining CP, he was an editor/producer with RenewableEnergyWorld.com. He received his B.A. in journalism from Franklin Pierce University.


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