The magnitude of GHG emissions from the oil sands

by Milan on November 13, 2011

in Climate change, Oil sands

I saw this tweet earlier, and thought it would be a good thing to verify:

RT @climatehawk1: @ClimateReality: Annual #CO2 emissions from Alberta’s #tarsands highr thn emissions of 145 nations: ow.ly/1AjccWj

In the linked document (PDF), it says:

This equates to more carbon emissions than many countries, with the current tar sands emissions outranking 145 out of 207 nations, sitting between the emissions of New Zealand and Denmark.

Wikipedia has a list of countries by greenhouse gas emissions, which places Canada in 10th place with 1.83% of global emissions (note that we have about 0.4% of the global population). Canada’s absolute emissions are listed as 808.2 million tonnes (MT) of CO2 equivalent (CO2e). The Wikipedia list contains 186 countries, with the bottom 145 starting with Vietnam at 178.5 megatonnes CO2e and 0.4% of global emissions. Just adding up Vietnam and the five countries below it produces a sum of 944.8 megatonnes – more than all of Canada’s emissions. Oil sands emissions are still a minority of Canadian emissions, despite rapid expansion.

Wikipedia also lists New Zealand’s emissions as 82.5 megatonnes CO2e, and those of Denmark as 68.3 MT CO2e.

Canada’s latest National Inventory Report (zip) was submitted to the UNFCCC on 15 April 2010. It lists Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2008 as 734 MT CO2e. It lists fossil fuel industries as the source of 65.3 MT of emissions, along with 23.7 MT for mining and oil and gas extraction. Together, that is 89 MT of emissions. It seems incorrect to say that emissions from just the oil sands are greater than those from 145 countries, given that just Vietnam emits significantly more than Canada’s entire oil, gas, and mining sectors put together.

The Pembina Institute claims: “About five per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from oilsands plants and upgraders” and “Oilsands plants and upgraders produced 37.2 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2008”. That is significantly less than either New Zealand or Denmark, much less than Vietnam, and even smaller compared with the cumulative total of the bottom 145 states.

All that being said, oil and gas production are a rapidly expanding area of Canadian emissions and the potential cumulative emissions from the huge quantity of oil in the oil sands is definitely something that should be taken seriously from a climatic perspective.

[Update: 10:45pm] I misunderstood the claim in the original document. The author (Shannon Walsh) was claiming that emissions associated with all fuels produced in the oil sands are greater than the emissions from 145 countries individually, not 145 countries all added together. As the discussion below elaborates upon, this is a more plausible claim.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan November 13, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Based on the Wikipedia list, the oil sands emit more than the bottom 33 countries, but most of them are real minnows. From largest to smallest, they are:

Suriname, Malta, Fiji, Swaziland, Burundi, Bahamas, Guinea-Bissau (which has 1.6 million people, compared with 34 million in Canada, and about 1/400th of our emissions), Liberia, Bhutan, Lesotho, Barbados, Gambia, Djibouti, Belize, Maldives, Seychelles, Cape Verde, Antigua & Barbuda, Vanuatu, Saint Lucia, Samoa, Comoros, Grenada, Saint Vincent & Grenadines, Tonga, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Dominica, Nauru, Sao Tome & Principe, Palau, Cook Islands, Kiribati, and Niue.

Together, those countries emit 34.7 MT according to the Wikipedia list.

If someone wants to track down more authoritative data, that would be welcome.

Tom Gray (@climatehawk1) November 13, 2011 at 9:54 pm

It seems clear that Walsh’s intent was to say more than Vietnam (or the country ranking 53rd), not Vietnam plus 144 countries (in other words, more than 145 of the world’s 207 countries, but taken one by one, not as a group). That is how I read the claim initially, and it’s supported by her text, which actually says “This equates to more carbon emissions than many countries, with the current tar sands emissions outranking 145 out of 207 nations, sitting between the emissions of New Zealand and Denmark.” Even so, it appears to be incorrect, based on the numbers you have assembled.

Milan November 13, 2011 at 10:16 pm

Ah, I had taken it to mean the sum of the emissions from the bottom 145 countries. I added a correction to the bottom of my original post.

Compared to just one country, the 37.2 MT Pembina figure would come 93rd, between Nepal and Trinidad & Tobago.

Tom Gray (@climatehawk1) November 13, 2011 at 10:18 pm

OK. Here is some quick back-of-envelope stuff. USEPA says 0.43 MT of CO2 per barrel of conventional oil. Walsh says tar sands oil production emits more than three times as much (not clear whether that includes consumption). For simplicity’s sake, let’s say 3x or 1.3 MT per bbl produced. Walsh says 111 million bbl by Syncrude in 2007. 111 million bbl x 1.3 MT per bbl = 144 MT, which seems quite a bit closer to the 178.5 MT cited in the Wikipedia list for Vietnam in 2005. So her calculation (or my half-baked version of it) seems internally consistent, there’s just a whopping discrepancy with the numbers cited by others.

Milan November 13, 2011 at 10:22 pm

This is one of the major methodological questions, when it comes to assessing greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada’s National Inventory Report counts things like the natural gas burned in Fort McMurray to liquify bitumen, but it does not count the emissions that result when the synthetic crude Canada exports is actually burned.

If you include all emissions from fuels originating in the oil sands, the figure you would end up with would be higher than the Pembina figure cited above.

(By the same token, you can think about emissions embedded in imports. If GHG pollution is emitted in China to make steel for an office tower in Toronto or a pipeline in Alberta, should those be counted as Chinese emissions or Canadian ones? Under the UNFCCC, they would be counted as Chinese, but it might be more ethical and appropriate to count them as Canadian. If you count the emissions embedded as imports on the tally for the importing country, Europe’s apparent success in cutting emissions in the post-Kyoto period gets reversed.)

Milan November 13, 2011 at 10:24 pm

USEPA says 0.43 MT of CO2 per barrel of conventional oil

This cannot possibly be right. A barrel of oil is 55 gallons. 0.43 MT is 430,000,000 kilograms.

Tom Gray (@climatehawk1) November 13, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Guessing further, here is some language from Pembina’s analysis: “Also, the [National Inventory Report] does not reflect emissions associated with upstream land use or natural gas production and does not include downstream refining or combustion.” So more digging, as it were, will be needed to determine the source of the discrepancy.

. November 13, 2011 at 10:27 pm

U.S. and Europe ‘Outsource’ Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Andrea Thompson
Date: 08 March 2010 Time: 09:03 AM ET

Tom Gray (@climatehawk1) November 13, 2011 at 10:32 pm

The USEPA cite is for Metric Tons (MT), not Million Tons. Sorry I switched between the two randomly, but the end calculation is correct, 144 million metric tons (that should be MMT, BTW) for 111 million bbl of synthetic crude based on 1.3 MT per bbl.

Milan November 13, 2011 at 10:36 pm

From this site, the USEPA figure is 0.43 metric tons (not megatonnes) CO2 / barrel.

(The Wikipedia and Pembina figures are in terms of CO2 equivalent, including non-CO2 greenhouse gases.)

Ignoring that for the moment, there is the question of how much the CO2 emissions vary between a barrel of conventional crude oil and a barrel of synthetic crude from the oil sands. It is plausible that the upstream portion is three times larger for the oil sands barrel – that is, the emissions associated with getting it out of the ground and turning it into a barrel of crude oil. Once it has been converted, however, I don’t see why it wouldn’t produce the same amount of CO2 as a barrel of conventional crude when burned.

This is why carbon capture and storage can’t do much to help with oil sands emissions. The technology could conceivably bury the additional emissions associated with upstream activities, but most of the total emissions associated with a barrel of oil occur when the final fuel (gasoline, kerosene, etc) is burned, usually in a vehicle. There is no plausible way for cars and jets to capture and store their CO2 for eventual burial. For one thing, it would be significantly heavier than the fuel they began their journey with, since each carbon atom from the fuel gets bound to two oxygen atoms from the air.

Tom Gray (@climatehawk1) November 13, 2011 at 10:36 pm

OK. Tough to do this in real time as our messages are crossing, but I think that we are pretty close to the same page?

Tom Gray (@climatehawk1) November 13, 2011 at 10:38 pm

What you say about CCS here makes sense to me. I also don’t see why the emissions from combustion would be 3x.

Milan November 13, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Can you find an authoritative figure for total oil sands output, in either barrels per day or barrels per year?

Milan November 13, 2011 at 10:44 pm

This Wikipedia page lists total oil sands production in 2006 as 1.126 million barrels per day.

For the sake of comparison, this New York Times article describes Saudi Arabian production as being 10 million barrels a day.

Milan November 13, 2011 at 10:52 pm

If we use the 1.126 million barrel / day figure, that would work out to 176 megatonnes of CO2 per year (based on the 0.43 tonnes of CO2 per barrel of oil figure for conventional crude). This is right around Vietnam in the Wikipedia ranking (though this is just CO2, and the Wikipedia list is CO2e).

If you triple the 0.43 figure (which may not be justified), the annual emissions associated with burning 1.126 million barrels of oil would be 530 MT, between Ukraine and Iran on the Wikipedia list.

The fairest thing to do would be to get three distinct figures:

  1. The total upstream emissions associated with oil sands extraction and upgrading in Canada
  2. The emissions produced in Canadaby burning fuel originating from the oil sands
  3. The emissions produced outside of Canada by burning oil sands fuel

You could consider all three together as the climatic impact of the oil sands, though it may or may not be fair to assign all of the blame for that impact to Canada.

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