Dirty Oil: How the tar sands are fueling the global climate crisis

Publication - April 1, 2009
Edmonton, Canada — A report commissioned by Greenpeace Canada analyses the significant role dirty oil from the Alberta tar sands plays in the global climate crisis.

Greenpeace commissioned respected journalist Andrew Nikiforuk to write the report: “Dirty Oil: How the tar sands are fueling the global climate crisis.” Nikiforuk is the award-winning author of “Tar Sands: Dirty oil and the Future of a Continent.”

The report shows how the world’s addiction to oil is driving tar sands development with production likely to expand by three to five fold by 2020. The unconventional bitumen resource of the tar sands produces a dirty oil that is one of the world’s most carbon-intensive fuels. The report argues that the unrestrained release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, especially carbon-intensive ones, “now threatens the political stability of human civilization.”

The rapid increase in the development of carbon-intensive, unconventional oil “could tip the scales towards dangerous and uncontrollable climate change.” Tar sands development may provide the technological and financial tool kit for developing other sources of unconventional oil, adding greatly to the threat of global warming.

The report notes that to promote tar sands development, the Canadian government has actively obstructed energy conservation at home and has blocked the development of effective action on climate change abroad.

The environmental destruction caused by the tar sands is not just a Canadian problem. Every major multinational oil firm and state-owned oil company has invested in development of the tar sands, the world’s largest energy project. As a result, companies face dramatic increases in financial liabilities and increases in their carbon footprints. The world faces an increase in the threat of climate chaos.

Report Findings:

  • The rapid development of the tar sands, the world’s largest capital project, signals the end of cheap oil. To escalate the production of high-cost and high-carbon unconventional fuels will destabilize the climate and the global economy.
  • The tar sands now produce 1.3 million barrels of heavy oil a day and supply the US, the world’s largest oil consumer, with 13 per cent of its crude imports. That share could grow to 37 per cent. China, the world’s second-largest oil consumer, has proposed a strategic alliance with Canada to transport dirty oil by supertanker to Asian refineries.
  • If exploitation of the tar sands continues unabated, by 2020 it could produce more GHGs than Austria, Portugal, Ireland or Denmark. The project’s CO2 output could even rival or exceed that of Belgium, a nation of 10 million people. Emissions from the tar sands currently exceed those of several European nations including Estonia and Lithuania. Climate changing gases from two major mining operations now dwarf the emissions of Cyprus and Malta.
  • Energy exports to the US and tar sands production have made Canada one of the most energy- and carbon-intensive nations in the industrial world. Canada is one of the world’s highest per capita GHG emitters.
  • Canada does not report life-cycle emissions from the tar sands in a transparent way. Data are incomplete and inaccessible. Most life-cycle carbon studies do not include the effects of destruction of carbon sinks in peat lands or of land disturbance caused by drilling for natural gas, the key fuel for tar sands production.
  • Due to their extreme energy intensity, the tar sands have a higher carbon footprint than any other commercial oil product on the planet. The dirtiest projects burn extreme volumes of natural gas to create steam to melt oil out the ground. These in situ, or steam plants, now use four times more natural gas than mining operations. Some projects are now 10 times dirtier than production of oil in the North Sea.
  • The tar sands now cannibalize Canada’s natural gas supply and represent approximately 20 per cent of Canadian demand. To replace the unsustainable consumption of natural gas as a fuel stock for inferior oil production, some organizations have proposed as many as 25 nuclear reactors to produce bitumen by 2025.
  • Given its growing dependence on oil revenue and the influence of fossil fuel lobbies, Canada has actively fought standards to lower the carbon content of fuels, lobbied against US legislation to lower emissions, muzzled federal scientists and obstructed international climate change negotiations.
  • Like many European oil companies, Royal Dutch Shell has banked its entire future on production from the tar sands. It risks becoming the world’s most carbon-intensive company.
  • Many US agencies and lobbyists cite Canada’s low-level regulatory regime as a global model for exploiting high-carbon fuels such as oil shale.
  • Unproven, band-aid technologies, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), will not reduce emissions from the tar sands on any significant scale in the near future. Neither peak oil nor the carbon crisis, flip sides of the same coin, can be solved with more energy inputs.

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For more information, please contact:

Brian Blomme, Communications Coordinator, (416) 930-9055