Sheila McNulty Oil sands’ report implies it is not a high carbon fuel; but read on

Is oil sands (or tar sands, as environmentalists like to call the fuel from Canada’s tar-like bitumen) really not as bad for the environment as traditional crude oil?

At first brush, the latest report on the controversial subject, this time from the well-respected IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, might have left me with that impression. The headline reads, “Oil Sands Greehouse Gas Emissions are Lower than Commonly Perceived.”

But a backlash by environmentalists, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, made me take a closer look at what was being said. And even CERA is not saying that oil from oil sands is less carbon intensive than traditional crude.

This is the part of the report I am referring to:

The analysis, drawn from the results of 13 publicly available studies from government, academic and industry sources, found that the total emissions from refined products wholly derived from oil sands are five to 15 percent higher than the average crude consumed in the United States.

But what CERA concludes is that emissions for oil sands products processed in the US are on average only 6 per cent higher, because those products are often blends of oil sands and lower carbon products.

So it is not that oil sands’ crude is a lower carbon emitting source – it is just that, because US oil refiners combine the oil sands’ crude with traditional crude, the end product is not as carbon intensive as some might think. Here is a quote from Jim Burkhard, CERA managing director for Global Oil, underlining the consultancy’s position:

Taking into account the complete well-to-wheels life cycle is crucial for making comparisons between sources of crude oil. Seventy to 80 per cent of the GHG emissions come from the combustion of the fuel in an engine so the vast majority of emissions remain the same whether the oil comes from West Africa, Latin America or Canada.

While his logic certainly makes sense, and it will be something the oil industry latches onto to press their case for further controversial pipelines into the US to deliver the oil sands’ crude, let us be clear about what CERA is saying. Because US oil refiners mix the oil sands’ fuel with other fuels, the end result is not as potent as it would be if it was pure oil sands’ crude oil. That is certainly true – we all know that diluting anything makes it less potent.

But it does not change the carbon intensity of producing crude oil from oil sands. That is like saying marijuana or transfats (pick your poison here) are not as bad for you as some might think if you mix them with water (or anything else) and dilute them.

At a time when the US must do something to reduce its carbon emissions, it is important that this report is not misinterpreted. The Obama Administration should think long and hard about whether the country needs a third pipeline to bring this fuel into the US. There already are two. This week, a delegation of Canadian and American indigenous First Nations communities met with government officials to discuss the issues around the fuel that is to be imported from Canada all the way down into Texas.

When President Barack Obama was campaigning, I would have thought the last thing his administration would even be considering would be new pipelines to bring high-carbon fuels into the country. Yet it has put the short-term economic impact over the long-term potential environmental impact in approving an earlier pipeline. Reports like CERAs appear certain to bolster the case for futher approvals. Unless, of course, one takes the time to read them.