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Oil sands emissions to nearly triple by 2020, Pembina warns

Greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s oil sands are out of control, a new Pembina Institute study concludes.

Carbon output more than doubled between 1990 and 2008. And the Calgary-based think tank warns the latest numbers could nearly triple by 2020.

“To put that into perspective, this is nearly double the greenhouse gases currently emitted from New York City,” reads the report.

Canada is currently the largest supplier of crude oil to the U.S. Much of that supply comes from the oil sands.

Alberta energy is difficult to extract. Thick bitumen must be mined or steamed from the ground, then cooked at high temperatures.

From 1990 to 2008, total greenhouse gases from the oil sands shot up 121 percent, Pembina concludes.

Industry sources project huge production increases in coming years. Much of that will come from in-situ projects (essentially injecting high pressure steam deep underground).

On average, this method produces 91 kg of CO2 per barrel of oil – compared to 36 kg for mining, Pembina concludes. And that doesn't include emissions from the intensive upgrading process.

More in-situ, combined with growing U.S. demand, means huge spikes in carbon. That creates serious “implications” for Canadian and American attempts to fight climate change, the report says.

Both countries have pledged to reduce carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Canada risks falling far short of its target, Pembina warns.

“If emissions rise as projected under Environment Canada’s business-as-usual scenario,” the report reads, “they will reach 28 per cent above 2005 levels by 2020, with oil sands expansion accounting for nearly half of the projected increase.”

As the Tyee recently reported, a coalition of Canadian politicians and major oil companies may succeed in weakening U.S. climate change laws – legislation that could limit energy imports from the oil sands.

Government proponents often downplay the emissions created by producing oil in northern Alberta.

But Pembina -- and other observers -- argues several recent studies have been flawed. (To read the Tyee's take on the controversy, click here.)

Geoff Dembicki reports for the Tyee.

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