If the world is successful in reducing emissions sufficiently to avoid dangerous climate change, there is a limited future for a prospering oil-sands sector in Canada. The conventional wisdom among the Canadian establishment is that growing the oil-sands business is compatible with meeting national and global emissions commitments. This is a myth that obscures government policy contradictions.
In a recent Globe and Mail article Environmentalists should end the charade over the oil sands, Martha Hall Findlay and Trevor McLeod argue that keeping oilsands in the ground and stopping new oil pipelines will actually increase global greenhouse gas emissions.
Their argument rests on two premises:
- Oil demand won’t start to fall until 2040. After that it will remain high for many years.
- Oil-sands production is becoming less emissions intensive thanks to improving technology. If oil-sands consumption by US refineries were replaced by, say, more emissions-intensive Venezuelan heavy crude, then global emissions would increase.
I won’t dispute the second point in detail, at least for now. The case I’m making here does not depend on rebutting it. If overall oil-sands upstream emissions intensities really are falling due to improved technology, that’s welcome news. But I haven’t seen the most recent average emissions data that back it up. My understanding is that newer projects are predominantly in-situ facilities that are more emissions intensive than mines, so that the average GHG emissions per barrel is actually rising slowly.