- The Writer holds an MSc in Eurasian Political Economy & Energy from King’s College London and also an MA in European Studies from Sabancı University.
Regarded as one of the largest industrial projects on earth, the Canadian tar sands, also known as oil sands or crude bitumen, has increasingly become the focus of attention due to its vast impact on the environment and the country’s economy. Despite tar sands producers spending millions of dollars to reverse the impact of local pollution with some admirable success stories, Canada has fallen short of its greenhouse gas reduction commitment for 2020 by surpassing its target of 612 megatonnes with an increase of over 122 megatonnes.
In the case of conventional oil, the liquid is pumped out of a well via pipeline without going through any extra process. However, in the case of tar sands oil production; since oil is trapped in sand and clay, it needs to go through extra steps to enable oil flow. This requires significant energy and processing. The Canadian environmental organization, the Environmental Defense, claims that tar sands contribution to greenhouse emission is 81 percent higher when compared with conventional oil.
The government and the oil industry aims to triple tar sands production by 2030. As a fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, an increase in tar sands volumes in Canada would mean that tar sands production would continue to use more fresh water and emit more greenhouse gas emissions unless strong measures are taken. For the last 25 years, with the help of advances in drilling technologies, tar sands producers have been able to cut one-fourth of their greenhouse emissions with the possibility of further improvements should innovative technological applications be utilized. However, the dilemma here is even if emissions per barrel drop at a significant rate, as long as production increases, emissions cut per barrel are unlikely to be able to reverse the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere. The Canadian Environmental Defense claims that emissions from tar sands tripled from 1990 to 2010, and are projected to increase to as much as six times compared to 1990 levels by 2020.
Among the various impacts caused by tar sands production, the most visible environmental impact can be seen in land disturbance. Many activists and prominent politicians, upon touring the production site, have called the tar sands production area a toxic wasteland.
The amount of water used in the production of just one barrel of crude oil is alarming. Tar sands mining requires approximately 13 to 14 liters of water for every barrel of production. Despite the current techniques utilized that allows for the recycling of water by as much as 50 percent, water usage and contamination remain high. In the Alberta province alone, more than 2 million barrels of fresh water per day are taken from one of its major water sources in the region, the Athabasca River.
To increase the rate of water recycling and reduce water consumption, production growth has turned to innovative techniques. A technique used in production, called In Situ, offers a promising alternative in which fresh water becomes less of a concern for producers. The In- Situ method uses steam that is then injected into the well under high pressure to allow the melted bitumen to flow to the surface. Nonetheless, as the steam-to-oil ratio In-Situ method increases, so does the operational cost.
Reduction in water consumption is not the sole problem that tar sands producers face. The government’s stringent policy measures to cut the overall footprint caused by tar sands production have intensified pressure on producers. The vast majority of gas emitted in tar sands production is not connected to production alone but is also linked to fuel burnt by mining trucks, gas burnt for heating as well as electricity used for production. Emissions released from production remain relatively small, approximately 30 percent, compared to electricity generation, logistics, and heating, which make up the biggest share of greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmental groups claim that during tar sands oil production, the gas emitted into the atmosphere is three to four times higher when compared to conventional oil production.
With its substantial gas and oil reserves, Alberta’s per-capita annual emissions are the most in comparison with other Canadian provinces. Per-capita emissions for Alberta were equal to 67 tonnes per resident in 2015, whereas Canada’s average per-capita emissions were 21 tonnes. Since Canada aims to reduce its carbon emissions by at least 30 percent in 2030, below the 2005 level agreed in the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, the current trajectory does not show that Canada is on track to meet its COP21 commitment. This is the case especially if tar sands oil production is to be tripled over the long-term without appropriate carbon taxation.
Environmental activist groups in Canada have called for a complete ban on tar sands oil, irrespective of how each project is managed. Moreover, such rulings are likely to become punitive in the industry. Despite its reputation as the highest emitting province in Canada, Alberta became the first province to enact a carbon pricing mechanism back in 2007. Alberta charged CAD$15 per tonne of CO2, and in 2016, CO2 emissions per tonne rose to CAD$30. The government, on reviewing the carbon-pricing mechanism, expected that it would become a broad-based tax in the years to come, in which both consumers, as well as other industrial players, would become responsible for their emitted CO2. Provinces such as British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario are soon expected to introduce broad-based carbon taxing.
To meet its very ambitious target set in Paris, and to tackle excessive greenhouse gases, environmental challenges from tar sands need to be taken under strict control. Considering that tar sands production has become one of the major sources of increases in greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, a well-formulated regulation on tar sands production needs to be introduced as soon as possible to avoid falling behind the promised climate target. Additionally, the introduction of a broad-based carbon taxing, as in the case of Alberta, is of utmost importance. To increase overall air quality and to protect fresh water sources, new production methods, as such the In-Situ method, should be put more into practice. The expansion of tar sands fields, without strict controls or new production methods, could cancel out every other effort that the country is making to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Anadolu Agency's editorial policy.