By Gerard Wynn
LONDON, Dec 7 The Canadian tar sand oil
lobby is deliberately using uncertainty over the carbon
emissions from heavier crudes to wriggle out of oversight in a
tactic which further tarnishes the sector's environmental image.
Green groups have stepped up tar sands opposition as the
United States plots a delayed Keystone XL pipeline to U.S. Gulf
Coast refineries while some regulators take steps which may
The EU and California have each set targets to cut carbon
emissions from road transport fuels under wider measures to
tackle climate change and promote clean energy.
That tar sands are more carbon emitting than the average
crude oil is undisputed and stems from energy-intensive
European and Californian regulators now want to assign a
high carbon label to tar sands, spelling out emissions per unit
of energy, which may discourage refiners facing CO2 targets from
But the industry has seized on its own commissioned study,
which suggests the European Commission exaggerated the carbon
impact, to argue that tar sand emissions be treated as other
Tar sands are important because of their scale on a par with
Saudi Arabia's vast oil fields.
Despite uncertainty over the exact CO2 emissions from tar
sands, these are certainly higher than most conventional crude,
and the case remains for highlighting this with a label as
California and the European Commission propose.
Most road transport emissions come from burning fuel (70-85
percent), not producing it, so it makes sense to focus most on
car efficiency standards.
Nevertheless, a barrel of tar sands oil does produce more
carbon emissions than the average crude, and the industry should
The industry is using two key blocking arguments.
One is to say that some other crudes are as high carbon as
tar sands. It is true that some Russian and Nigerian crude fall
into this category. Lobbyists argue that because they lack
reliable accounting, they can't be regulated, and so Canadian
tar sands shouldn't be either.
"It would not be possible given the standards of data
collection available globally to implement such a scheme any
time soon," said one energy industry source.
That's a race to the bottom which should be dismissed.
A second related argument surrounds the administrative
burden in general to track the CO2 emissions of each barrel.
The head of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), Mary
Nichols, answers that in a recent letter obtained by Reuters to
her EU counterpart the Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, in
an interesting display of collaboration. (see link above)
"The expected administrative burden ... is minimal. Oil
companies already track and report their crude oil information
as a normal course of business. Any additional production
related reporting going forward would be no more burdensome than
those currently placed on low carbon fuel providers," she wrote.
Emissions estimates vary widely according to calculation
assumptions, the tar sands projects (some of which are cleaner
running) and an error margin of about 5 percentage points which
leaves plenty of room for interpretation according to the
Estimates also depend on which parts of the product life
cycle are included.
Tar sands oil is extracted either by strip mining sand from
the surface or by pumping steam into deeper seams to make it
The oil is then converted either into a synthetic crude or
diluted with condensates before being shipped off to a refinery.
Diluting the raw oil sand bitumen also dilutes the carbon
emissions per barrel of the end product.
The initial extraction is three to five times more carbon
emitting than conventional crude recovery, according to a study
by Stanford University's Adam Brandt.
However, that margin is proportionately smaller after adding
the much bigger emissions from refining and combustion,
amounting to about 15-20 percent more than average European
crude, Brandt told Reuters.
If dilution of the product is included, tar sands are only
about 11 percent more emitting than average European crude,
according to a study by consultants IHS Cera, paid for and
championed by oil companies and at the lower end of estimates.
Given that the diluent is usually refined with the tar sand
as a single product, according to IHS Cera, it seems fair to
include it. Going forward, more of the diluent will be stripped
out and recycled, in which case it shouldn't be included.
Regulators' figures come in higher: the European Commission
measures tar sands emissions at 22 percent above the average
crude baseline. EU member states will debate the proposal in
California may produce its own estimate later this month.
The wide range illustrates a need for greater transparency,
but shouldn't be seized on as an excuse for inaction: a
compromise, "high carbon crude" figure can be found.
If the tar sands lobby tries to duck out altogether - and
there is evidence of present frantic Brussels lobbying - that
will tarnish its image further.