As I was catching up on a two-week backlog of news after my vacation, I ran across a New York Times editorial with the promising title of “Tar Sands and the Carbon Numbers.” Thinking that perhaps the Times might have woken up to the necessity of comparing the lifecycle emissions from oil sands to those from other crude oils, I was disappointed to find its editors perpetuating the common misunderstanding concerning these emissions when viewed only from an oil-production perspective. That’s a shame, because it results in the scape-goating of Canadian producers and pipeline companies while conveniently avoiding the soul-searching that ought to accompany a clear understanding that, whether we’re talking about oil sands or conventional oil imported from any other source, the vast majority of the lifecycle emissions will occur here, when the products into which these oils will be refined are consumed. It is also condescending toward the sovereign responsibility of our NAFTA neighbor for managing their national emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, which they ratified but we didn’t.
The pending State Department review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project linking Alberta’s oil and oil-sands projects to Gulf Coast refineries has become a hot-button issue for US environmental groups. Producing oil from oil sands, which were more commonly called tar sands until that became a term of disparagement, certainly involves more environmental consequences than most–though not all–conventional crude oils. Since US groups haven’t been very successful targeting the oil sands projects in Alberta, where they contribute significantly to Canada’s oil output and overall economy, the export pipeline has become a target of convenience. From my perspective, the angst about pipeline safety and acidic bitumen is mainly a red herring; the oil industry routinely handles other crude oils of similar sulfur levels and acidity, usually by adjusting the metallurgy of the pipes and vessels involved. The real issue here is greenhouse gas emissions, which the Times and most other critics of oil sands narrowly compare to those from producing conventional oils.
The Environment Canada report cited by the Times indicates that oil sands production and upgrading result in emissions about 70% higher per barrel than for the production of Canada’s average conventional oil. That’s in the range of other estimates I’ve seen. However, what the Times fails to mention is that such “upstream” emissions only account for a fraction of the total lifecycle emissions attributable to any oil. By far the biggest portion–even for oil sands–comes from the combustion of petroleum products by end-users.
So if at least 70% of the emissions from oil sands crude occur in the US, rather than Canada, and if the lifecycle (well-to-wheels) emissions from oil sands only average around 15% higher than for the average US refinery’s crude slate, while emitting little or no more than some commonly imported crude oils from other countries, are the XL pipeline’s opponents exaggerating its impact? I believe they are, unless they’re also willing to take on imports of consumer goods and other products from higher-emitting countries like China. That would be difficult to justify to the World Trade Organization, considering that the US doesn’t have a statutory limit on its own greenhouse gas emissions. It might also put us in an awkward position with regard to our exports to countries that have adopted strict emissions reduction targets.
Meanwhile we shouldn’t forget that under UN agreements it is Canada that bears responsibility for the extra emissions that oil sands generate in Alberta. The Environment Canada report indicates that oil sands are likely to contribute 11.7% of Canada’s GHG emissions by 2020, up from 6.7% in 2005, when Canada’s share of global GHG emissions stood at less than 2%. The expected increase in oil sands output would account for essentially all of the projected 7% rise in Canada’s emissions over that interval, an amount equivalent to 0.1% of current global emissions. The means by which Canada could address those incremental emissions include improved technology, offsetting cuts in other sectors, emissions trading and offsets purchased from other countries, or the Canadian government could simply choose to restrict oil sands output. Whatever path they choose, we have plenty of our own emissions to consider without going into a tizzy over a Canadian sector that currently emits roughly as much as US livestock waste management.
Trying to control the emissions from oil sands by blocking this pipeline is a perfect illustration of the difficulty of attempting to tackle a complex global environmental problem by focusing on isolated measures that only bear indirectly on the outcomes that matter. The weakness of the Times’ argument is reflected in the following sentence, referring to Canada’s policies: “The United States can’t do much about that, but it can stop the Keystone XL pipeline.” The implication seems to be that we would be better off if Canada exported its oil sands to developing Asia, their next best market, relieving us of any associated guilt, even if it made no actual difference in global emissions. I hope that when the State Department decides this matter, it gives appropriate weight to the fact that, other than fuel economy improvements in the US car fleet, our energy ties with Canada represent the single most effective energy security measure undertaken by this country since the oil crises of the 1970s.