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How Tar Sands Affect Climate Change

How Tar Sands Affect Climate Change

What are tar sands?

Tar sands, also known as oil sands, are a fossil fuel deposit. They consist of sand, water, clay and bitumen – a thick type of oil.1 Canada’s oil sands are the largest deposit of crude on Earth.2

But, the oil sands industry is also highly carbon-intensive and emits greenhouse gas emissions.3 Further growth in the sector does not comply with Canada’s ambition to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.4

Where are Canadian oil sands found?

Deposits of tar sounds are found in various countries, including Venezuela, the United States and Russia.5 The Canadian oil sands are centred around three regions within the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.6 They lie beneath approximately 37 per cent of Alberta’s boreal forest.7 In total, they cover about 140,200 square kilometres (54,114 square miles) – an area the size of Florida.8 

tar sands

Extracting crude from tar sands requires draining wetlands, diverting rivers, removing trees and displacing wildlife.9 It is a significant source of pollution.10 From extraction to end-use, tar sands oil is associated with 31 per cent more emissions than the average North American crude.11 Oil sands projects account for 12 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions. They also account for 0.2 per cent of global emissions.12

How do tar sands form?

Like other fossil fuels, tar sands formed when ancient organic matter died and it was then covered by layers of sediment.13 The layers exerted enough pressure and created the right temperature to transform the matter into oil.14 Evaporation and the consumption of lighter hydrocarbons by bacteria leaves behind thick, viscous bitumen.15 It takes millions of years to produce the bitumen that is mined today.16 

The effect of tar sands on climate change

Fossil fuels

Coal, oil and natural gas are all examples of fossil fuels. They are all formed from the fossilised remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. They all have a high carbon content.17

As a result, fossil fuels produce large quantities of carbon dioxide when they are burned.18 The average amount of CO2 released through the combustion and use of fuel oil is 430 kilograms per barrel.19 Tar sands oil produces the same quantity of CO2 when it is burned as crude oil extracted from traditional methods.20

Why are the CO2 emissions of tar sands higher than conventional crude oil?

Nevertheless, the amount of CO2 released by extracting, refining and transporting tar sands oil is much higher.21 Bitumen from oil sands is harder to extract than conventional oil.22 It has a heavier consistency that requires more energy to both extract and convert to petroleum.23 The Oil-Climate Index (OCI), therefore, suggests that oil sands generate 2.2 times as many emissions per barrel than the average North American crude.24

oil sands

Different approaches to extracting and processing tar sands crude produce varying carbon emissions results. The least carbon-intensive operations cause 39 kilograms of CO2 per barrel. The most intensive contribute 127 kilograms of CO2 per barrel.25

Overall, the upstream emissions of Canada’s tar sands average oil output are ranked fourth-most intensive globally. Of 34 Canadian oil sands operations measured against 8,966 international oil fields, none were below the global midpoint for emissions. On the contrary, ten were double the midpoint, and five of those were triple or higher.26

Measuring the CO2 emissions of Canada’s oil sands

This is at odds with what oil companies proclaim. For instance, one claim is that oil sands average emissions per barrel decreased by 21 per cent between 2009 and 2017.27 The government holds technological and efficiency improvements, fewer venting emissions and reductions in the proportion of bitumen being upgraded to synthetic oil responsible for these improvements.28

In fact, average carbon emissions per barrel of Canadian heavy crude oil have increased by 16 per cent since measurements began in 1990.29 The greatest changes to the oil sands industry’s emissions intensity were one-off advances made about 20 years ago.30 There is evidence that the industry underestimates its figures.31 For instance, atmospheric measurements of CO2 emissions taken above Alberta’s tar sands region have intensities up to 123 per cent higher than industry data.32

Consequences of Canadian tar sands’ pollution

The vast tar sands region is Canada’s single biggest polluter.33 Their oil and gas sector as a whole is the greatest and fastest-rising source of CO2 pollution.34 Its emissions have almost doubled since 1990.35 They represent 80 per cent of Canada’s increase in emissions over that time.36

This situation is unlikely to change without a transition away from dirty fossil fuels. The emissions intensity from mining operations will grow as producers access deeper and lower quality bitumen. As the distance increases from mines to processing facilities, emissions will also inflate. In situ mining of bitumen is now the dominant form of tar sands extraction in Canada. This method produces 58 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions than surface mining.37

Canada’s oil sands and the Paris Climate Agreement

A complete pivot away from oil, gas and coal is necessary for Canada to meet its climate change commitments. The cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline permit is a step in the right direction.38

But time is running out to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Canada’s tar sands are one of the most carbon-intensive sources of oil, and it is jeopardising the future of our planet.

Sources

  1. CAPP. (2019). What Are the Oil Sands | Canada’s Oil Sands Facts & Information. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/oil/what-are-the-oil-sands/.
  2. CAPP. (2019). What Are the Oil Sands | Canada’s Oil Sands Facts & Information. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/oil/what-are-the-oil-sands/.
  3. Institute, P. (2017). The Real GHG trend: Oilsands among the most carbon intensive crudes in North America. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/real-ghg-trend-oilsands#:~:text=The%20Carnegie%20Endowment.
  4. Environment and Climate Change Canada (2016). Progress towards Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction target – Canada.ca. [online] Canada.ca. Available at: https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/environmental-indicators/progress-towards-canada-greenhouse-gas-emissions-reduction-target.html.
  5. CAPP. (n.d.). What Are the Oil Sands | Canada’s Oil Sands Facts & Information. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/oil/what-are-the-oil-sands/#:~:text=Oil%20sands%20deposits%20are%20found [Accessed 24 Mar. 2021].
  6. CAPP. (n.d.). What Are the Oil Sands | Canada’s Oil Sands Facts & Information. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/oil/what-are-the-oil-sands/#:~:text=Oil%20sands%20deposits%20are%20found [Accessed 24 Mar. 2021].
  7. www.sciencedirect.com. (n.d.). Oil Sand – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. [online] Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/oil-sand#:~:text=Alberta%20Oil%20Sands&text=Alberta [Accessed 24 Mar. 2021].
  8. www.sciencedirect.com. (n.d.). Oil Sand – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. [online] Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/oil-sand#:~:text=Alberta%20Oil%20Sands&text=Alberta [Accessed 24 Mar. 2021].
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  10. phys.org. (2019). Canada oil sands CO2 emissions hugely underestimated: study. [online] Available at: https://phys.org/news/2019-04-canada-oil-sands-co2-emissions.html.
  11. Institute, P. (2017). The Real GHG trend: Oilsands among the most carbon intensive crudes in North America. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/real-ghg-trend-oilsands#:~:text=The%20Carnegie%20Endowment.
  12. Nrcan.gc.ca. (2017). Crude oil facts | Natural Resources Canada. [online] Available at: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/science-data/data-analysis/energy-data-analysis/energy-facts/crude-oil-facts/20064.
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  14. CAPP. (n.d.). Alberta Oil Sands History and Milestones. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/oil/history-of-oil/#:~:text=Alberta.
  15. www.history.alberta.ca. (n.d.). The Formation of Oil Sands – Oil Sands – Alberta’s Energy Heritage. [online] Available at: http://www.history.alberta.ca/energyheritage/sands/origins/the-geology-of-the-oil-sands/the-formation-of-oil-sands.aspx [Accessed 24 Mar. 2021].
  16. www.history.alberta.ca. (n.d.). The Formation of Oil Sands – Oil Sands – Alberta’s Energy Heritage. [online] Available at: http://www.history.alberta.ca/energyheritage/sands/origins/the-geology-of-the-oil-sands/the-formation-of-oil-sands.aspx [Accessed 24 Mar. 2021].
  17. Denchak, M. (2018). Fossil Fuels: The Dirty Facts. [online] NRDC. Available at: https://www.nrdc.org/stories/fossil-fuels-dirty-facts.
  18. Denchak, M. (2018). Fossil Fuels: The Dirty Facts. [online] NRDC. Available at: https://www.nrdc.org/stories/fossil-fuels-dirty-facts.
  19. US EPA, O. (2015). Greenhouse Gases Equivalencies Calculator – Calculations and References. [online] US EPA. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gases-equivalencies-calculator-calculations-and-references#:~:text=The%20average%20carbon%20dioxide%20coefficient.
  20. energyeducation.ca. (n.d.). Climate impacts of oil sands – Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Climate_impacts_of_oil_sands#:~:text=The%20climate%20impacts%20of%20oil [Accessed 22 Mar. 2021].
  21. energyeducation.ca. (n.d.). Climate impacts of oil sands – Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Climate_impacts_of_oil_sands#:~:text=The%20climate%20impacts%20of%20oil [Accessed 22 Mar. 2021].
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  23. October 16, J.M. and 2019 (2019). Scrubbing the oil sands’ record. [online] Macleans.ca. Available at: https://www.macleans.ca/economy/scrubbing-the-oil-sands-record/.
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  25. October 16, J.M. and 2019 (2019). Scrubbing the oil sands’ record. [online] Macleans.ca. Available at: https://www.macleans.ca/economy/scrubbing-the-oil-sands-record/.
  26. October 16, J.M. and 2019 (2019). Scrubbing the oil sands’ record. [online] Macleans.ca. Available at: https://www.macleans.ca/economy/scrubbing-the-oil-sands-record/.
  27. Jaremko, D. (2020). A Matter of Fact: Oil sands production and greenhouse gas emissions. [online] Canadian Energy Centre. Available at: https://www.canadianenergycentre.ca/a-matter-of-fact-oil-sands-production-and-greenhouse-gas-emissions/ [Accessed 22 Mar. 2021].
  28. Nrcan.gc.ca. (2017). Crude oil facts | Natural Resources Canada. [online] Available at: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/science-data/data-analysis/energy-data-analysis/energy-facts/crude-oil-facts/20064.
  29. Environmental Defence. (n.d.). The Biggest Barrier to Climate Action in Canada: The Oil and Gas Lobby. [online] Available at: https://environmentaldefence.ca/report/oil_barrier_climate_action_canada/ [Accessed 22 Mar. 2021].
  30. Institute, P. (2017). The Real GHG trend: Oilsands among the most carbon intensive crudes in North America. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/real-ghg-trend-oilsands.
  31. Liggio, J., Li, S.-M., Staebler, R.M., Hayden, K., Darlington, A., Mittermeier, R.L., O’Brien, J., McLaren, R., Wolde, M., Worthy, D. and Vogel, F. (2019). Measured Canadian oil sands CO2 emissions are higher than estimates made using internationally recommended methods. Nature Communications, [online] 10(1). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6478833/.
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  35. Environmental Defence. (n.d.). The Biggest Barrier to Climate Action in Canada: The Oil and Gas Lobby. [online] Available at: https://environmentaldefence.ca/report/oil_barrier_climate_action_canada/ [Accessed 22 Mar. 2021].
  36. Environmental Defence. (n.d.). The Biggest Barrier to Climate Action in Canada: The Oil and Gas Lobby. [online] Available at: https://environmentaldefence.ca/report/oil_barrier_climate_action_canada/ [Accessed 22 Mar. 2021].
  37. Institute, P. (2017). The Real GHG trend: Oilsands among the most carbon intensive crudes in North America. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/real-ghg-trend-oilsands.
  38. McKibben, B. (n.d.). Joe Biden’s Cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline Is a Landmark in the Climate Fight. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/joe-bidens-cancellation-of-the-keystone-pipeline-is-a-landmark-in-the-climate-fight.
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