All of this is extremely energy intensive. Companies expend energy equal to one barrel of oil to extract four to eight barrels from the oil sands.
More energy expended means more greenhouse gases. A Congressional Research Service report released May 15 estimated that Canada’s oil sands produced 14 to 20 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average barrel of U.S. imported crude oil — or comparable to low-quality Venezuelan crudes.
By other standards, however, oil sands look worse. The “well to tank” emissions (those created just to get the gas to the car) of Canadian oil sands are about twice as high as the average U.S. crude import.
In addition, stripping the wetlands of peat and fen — which naturally store carbon dioxide — compounds the problem, said Jennifer Grant, oil sands director at the Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based environmentally oriented think tank.
That’s why foes of the Keystone XL have turned the pipeline, just one of many built or expanded every year, into a test of President Obama’s commitment to slowing climate change.
“The projects themselves are enormous and ugly — but even uglier is the freight of carbon they contain,” said Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor who has been a leading voice against the pipeline. “That’s the second-largest pool of carbon on Earth. . . . No one who is serious about fighting climate change can want to see that oil out of the ground and into the air.”
The oil sands will be needed even if people use oil more efficiently, said John Abbott, executive vice president for heavy oil at Shell Canada. World population growth and improving living standards in developing countries will soon double global oil demand.
“All forms of energy have an impact, and it’s Shell’s role to ensure that whatever form of energy it generates is done in the most environmentally acceptable manner that the industry knows how to do,” Abbott said. “Once we get to that point, you cannot expect any more from an industry.”
This year, Shell and its partners will decide whether to go ahead with a project that would capture and bury carbon dioxide emissions from a plant near Edmonton that upgrades the quality of tar sands oil. Alberta and the federal government have agreed to put in $865 million, more than half the cost over the first decade. Shell would bury about a million tons of carbon dioxide a year, bringing the greenhouse gas profile of its oil sands close to parity with other U.S. imports, Shell said. Overall, however, the oil sands industry emits more than 30 million tons of carbon dioxide a year and will emit more as it expands.