Oil from Canada’s oil sands is about 20% more carbon-intensive on average than crude from elsewhere.
That is the damming conclusion from a forthcoming new study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory and its partners. The study looked at a wells-to-wheels analysis, which takes into account greenhouse gas emissions along the entire supply chain, from extraction to transit, refining, and finally combustion by the end user.
Canada has 175 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, a massive tally that puts it in third place worldwide behind only Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Much of that comes in the form of heavy oil sands and Canada has ambitious plans to ramp up output. It produced 3.6 MMbpd in 2014, but hopes to double that figure in the coming decades.
“All crudes are not created equally,” Argonne National Laboratory’s Hao Cai, the lead researcher on the study, said in response to the findings.
If Canada exports more oil sands to the U.S. over time, greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. drivers would rise, even if gasoline consumption remained flat, owing to the dirtier profile of Canada’s oil.
The study found that gasoline refined from oil sands from 27 projects that were studied released 18 to 21% more greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline derived from conventional crude. On a simple well-to-refinery basis, oil sands are four times more carbon-intensive than light oil from the United States.
The conclusions will no doubt give ammunition to environmental critics who oppose oil sands production. Earlier this month a group of 100 prominent Canadian and American scientists signed a letter calling for a moratorium on new oil sands projects. It will also add fuel to the fire for opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline, an iconic project that would lead to more oil sands funneled south from Canada to the United States.
U.S. President Barack Obama has previously said he would not approve the pipeline if it significantly exacerbated greenhouse gas emissions. The DOE study would seem to offer the justification for him to reject the pipeline, which has already been floundering amid the U.S. federal bureaucracy for seven years.