For years, oil sands extraction was a small-scale industry in Canada. Commercial development of Alberta’s oil sands kicked off in 1967, but it didn’t really start to pick up pace until the 1980s. Today, though, it’s a booming business—to the point where the the carbon emissions associated with the Alberta oil sands account for a full 9 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study.
Oil sands, also known as bituminous sands, are sandy soils that are interspersed with a heavy, sticky, solid kind of crude oil known as bitumen. If it’s heated up, the bitumen can be separated from the sand. Oil sands oil is harder to extract and more energy-intensive to process than conventional oil. And, though the techniques used at the Alberta sands have grown more efficient over the past forty years, oil sands oil still takes 12 to 24 percent more energy to get it into a useful state than conventional crude oil. And the gains made in efficiency were more than counterbalanced by the explosive growth of the oil sands projects, the authors of the new study found.
These scientists, led by Stanford’s Jacob Englander, were concerned not just with emissions from the extraction process itself. Instead, they did life cycle assessment—what they’re calling a “well-to-wheel” measure—of how much the oil sands’ greenhouse gas emissions have changed since the 1970s.
In 2010, the scientists found, the oil sands accounted for 65 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. That makes the oil sands a larger source of carbon dioxide emissions in Canada than the country’s entire agriculture sector or its entire industrial sector, which in 2010 were responsible for 53 or 56 megatons of carbon dioxide, respectively.
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