Posted by: David Hone

Are Canada's oil sands to blame for rising atmospheric CO2?

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In a recent New York Times opinion piece, NASA climate scientist James Hansen again puts forward his very compelling argument for strong action on limiting global CO2 emissions. Some observers have challenged his thinking, but the warnings he has given over the last thirty years have proven to be pretty much on the mark as observations show that the world is warming.

In the most recent piece, Hansen links the production of synthetic crude from oil sands bitumen in Alberta as a game changer for the climate. He states;

That is why I was so troubled to read a recent interview with President Obama in Rolling Stone in which he said that Canada would exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves “regardless of what we do.” If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate. . . . . . . The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 393 p.p.m. over the last 150 years. The tar sands contain enough carbon — 240 gigatons — to add 120 p.p.m.

There is no doubt that the oil sands bitumen reserves in Canada are very significant. In a recent report the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) estimates that provable reserves stand at some 170 billion bbls, with a potential total reserve of some 1.7 trillion bbls. The first figure represents the current estimate of recoverable oil on the basis of existing technology, whereas the latter is indicative of the total amount of oil in the region, recoverable or not. The second figure is the one that equates to 240 gigatons of carbon quoted by James Hansen.

But actual production of oil from the region gives rise to a completely different set of figures. Production of oil sands bitumen started in the late 1960s and by 2010 had reached some 1.6 million bbls per day (ERCB figures). ERCB estimates production at about 3.6 mbbl/day by 2020. Assuming an increasing trajectory which sees production doubling again by 2050 (to 7 million bbbls/day), total cumulative production over 80 years would be 74 billion bbls, which equates to some 35 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted through the production and use of the oil. This equates to an increase in atmospheric CO2 of about 2 ppm (by contrast, Saudi production over the same period could contribute about 6 ppm). If production continued through to 2100 and reached 10 million bbls/day, cumulative production would exceed current proven reserves (so assuming technology improvements) and would equate to an increase in atmospheric CO2 of about 7 ppm over 130 years of production. The resource may be vast, but production is limited by the rate at which new projects come on stream. Given a scenario of complete inaction on climate change over the very long term, it may well be that oil sands might eventually contribute some 100 ppm to atmospheric CO2 levels, but that could take 1000 years. Current trends would likely have us hitting a climate induced “brick wall” long before that.

The point here is not to argue that this is all OK or that James Hansen is wrong, but to illustrate that the issue of CO2 emissions and the resulting climate impact cannot be linked to any individual fossil fuel extraction. Each and every major reserve on the planet can clearly only contribute a few ppm at most over the coming 50 to 100 years, but so goes the tragedy of the commons. This of course highlights the critical need for collective action.

The point that Hansen is really making is that oil sands is illustrative of an ongoing global trend to extract or mine increasingly challenging reserves of oil, gas and coal and bring them to market. Global energy markets are driving this behaviour and will probably continue to do so as population increases and economies develop. Put simply, energy is in demand and the market will respond.

Given the recent change in estimates for global natural gas supply, there is now evidence that the availability of fossil fuels may not be self limiting, at least for a century or so (and possibly much longer as extraction technology improves). This argues strongly for the introduction of carbon pricing, which Hansen also calls for in his opinion piece.

Carbon pricing is the essential precursor to technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), which may be the only available route forward to allow both energy demand to be met and CO2 emissions reduced. Alberta has at least started down this route, with a C$15 price driving behaviour in oil sands operations. That price, in combination with a technology incentive package, should see CCS activity emerge as part of future oil sands development.

Image Credit: Christopher Kolaczan/Shutterstock

Authored by:

David Hone

David Hone serves as the Chief Climate Change Advisor for Royal Dutch Shell. He combines his work with his responsibilities as a board member and Chairman of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA). Additionally, he works closely with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and has been a lead contributor to many of its recent energy and climate change ...

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August 31, 2012

Gabriel Atega says:

The notion of CO2 as climate driver is unscientific at present levels.  

First, 350 ppm means the element is less than 1% of total atmosphere elements: nitrogen is 700,000 ppm; oxygen is 210,000 ppm; and the remainder are water vapor and other elements.  Check this information and connect to the principles of thermodynamics and the laws on heat transfer.  

Second, CO2 is heavier than air, it quickly precipitates to ground level when atmospheric temperature drops and is absorbed by the flora, fauna and bacteria to be reprocessed and converted to oxygen and other elements.  In other words, simply plant trees if one believes it is a serious concern.  Determine what is the level of emission, then compute for the number of trees to be planted to compensate for it.  There are varying growth rates of trees.  The fastest tree growth rates are in Southeast Asia, which translates to fast CO2 storing or sinking rates.  So a mining company or a fossil fuel extraction company may choose to support a reforestation project somewhere in the Philippines or Indonesia.  

Third, CO2 has only half the heat absorption or retention capacity when compared to water vapor.  And water vapor is lighter than air so it really stays in the air for quite a while longer than CO2 except when the process of condensation and precipitation takes place.  But precipitation do not take place all over the planet, and the capacity of the atmosphere to hold water vapor is infinite.  So while there are rainfall in some places, in most, there is none.  And so one may say that in a warming Earth, the water in the atmosphere will increase.  Evidence:  heavier floods, more inches in rainfall, thick snowfall and stronger storms, typhoons and hurricanes.

In other words, we should be more concerned about water vapor levels in the atmosphere than CO2.  Nobody seems to be talking about atmospheric water levels.  But again, there is only one effective antidote for keeping the water on the ground rather than on the atmosphere:  Trees!

So if anyone is genuinely concerned about the warming effects of CO2 or of water vapor, there is only one action to take:  plant trees.  I have done this myself, I have planted some 14,000 trees on our land.

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May 29, 2012

Simon Friedrich says:

The need for fossil energy should decrease. Trend setting governments have mandated that we switch to biofuels. Further, IPCC reports that the biofuels carbon dioxide emissions need be counted because these are carbon neutral. Apparently biofuel emissions enter the ether (not the atmosphere) and magically reappear in green plants.

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May 25, 2012

Willem Post says:

The march towards RE, carbon pricing and sequestration (a doubtful technology) may not be the answers. Many climate change meetings have been held and basically nothing has been the result. Actual living conditions will have to become significantly worse before people will finally act.

In the meantime, i.e., for the next few decades, it would be much better to prepare for GW by moving away from flood-prone ares, etc. See below article for details.

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May 22, 2012

Rick Engebretson says:

I agree with Geoffrey, this article raises the standard for discussion.

I also wonder about the statement, "there is now evidence that the availability of fossil fuels may not be self limiting." One might ask if this implies that using more fossil fuels increases economic activity, thereby increasing demand for fossil fuels? A positive feedback loop leading to our demise!

However, the important thing is to offer a constructive discussion of the many tails (tales) of this dragon. Living in this region, I suspect the bitumen extraction process has itself moderated weather (climate). Urbanites have lost their sense of smell. But out here where the sky is dark and the air smells from where it came, the extraction process seems to have altered the NorthWest winds. Agriculture and forestry are responding as much as water availability allows.

The human impact on the Earth is undeniable. And being one of the guilty, I sincerely hope we can discuss our case with such integrity.

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May 22, 2012

Geoffrey Styles says:


Reserves, potential resources and production are not interchangeable, and apocalyptic statements that depend on conflating them are thus fundamentally flawed.  Your cogent analysis makes this crucial distinction well. It just needs a bigger audience.

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May 22, 2012

Bill Woods says:

"... provable reserves stand at some 170 billion bbls, with a potential total reserve of some 1.7 trillion bbls. ..."


The latter should be 'resources', right?


Going off on a tangent, as I understand it, shipping the oil out by rail is less efficient than the KXL pipeline would be, meaning the delay in approval is causing higher emissions per bbl -- without doing much of anything to restrict production.

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May 23, 2012

David Hone says:

Yes, ". . . with a potential total resource of some 1.7 trillion . . . " would have been better. Thanks.

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