A funny thing happened on the way to the oil sands



Statistics Canada recently released figures on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 2004 to 2008 that contain a few surprises.

While the usual suspects - energy and transportation still loom large on the top 20 polluters list, the agriculture sector and its value chain emerges as a rather serious GHG offender, well ahead of pipelines, transportation and the cement industry.

Highly polluting agriculture-related industries include: Crop and Animal Production; Dairy Product Manufacturing; Meat Product Manufacturing; and, Pesticides, Fertilizer and other Agricultural Chemical Manufacturing.

Beef production has always been in the cross hairs of criticism for the amount of GHG emissions generated per pound of finished product; but who would have thought agriculture was a larger GHG polluter compared to trucking or rail transportation, or the oil and gas extraction sector when measured per $1,000 of production.

The electric power, transmission and distribution sector tops the GHG emitter list, due largely to the use of thermal coal to generate power. It is followed by pesticides, fertilizer and crop and animal production.

And the big three transport industries - pipelines, water and air transportation - also figure high on the list. Cement and concrete, chemical manufacturing and synthetic rubbers and resins are also strong emitters. The median rate of GHG emissions is 0.4 tonnes per thousand dollars of production. See Figure 1.

So who's doing a better job at cleaning up their act?

With respect to rates of improvement in cleaning up their GHG emissions act, some of the usual suspects still lead the charge in terms of GHG emissions. But the data reveals a few surprises with respect to GHG intensity per sector.

Who would have thought that universities and public institutions were lagging behind the coal industry in terms of how fast they were cleaning up their emissions act?

Those industries that are substantially improving (i.e. cutting) their emissions include coal mining, oil and gas extraction, petroleum and coal products manufacturing and oil and gas engineering construction. These industries were all improving at a rate of 10 percent or better compared to a median rate of 5.5 annually from 2004 to 2008.

The laggards in terms of the rate of GHG emissions improvement compared to the median rate of improvement include: Health Care Services Other than Hospitals; Religious Organizations; Postal Service and Couriers, Hospitals; Municipal Governments and Universities, Architect and Engineering Firms and Non-Profit Organizations. See Figure 2.


How do the Oil Sands compare?

According to a recent report by Natural Resources Canada, 'Extracting bitumen and other heavy crude oil requires more energy than the production of lighter and more accessible forms of crude oil. This tends to make heavy oil production more emissions-intensive per barrel of oil produced.

In broad terms, oil sands-derived crude oil on a life cycle or well-to- wheels basis is on average 5 to 15 percent more GHG- intensive than emissions from average crude oil.'

However, the report stated 'the oil sands have a long history of technological innovation that has led to improvements in energy efficiency and associated emissions reductions….'

Between 1990 and 2009, oil sands GHG emissions per barrel were reduced by 29 percent, and it is expected that emissions per barrel will decline by an additional 10 percent over the next 20 years.

Let's not kid ourselves. In spite of improvements in the rate of GHG emissions, both the energy and transportation sectors remain as serious emitters of greenhouse gases.

However, the resource sectors - including coal mining and oil and gas extraction - have made considerable improvements in the rate of GHG emissions over the past four years.

So while the conventional wisdom is to point fingers at the oil sands sector for its poor GHG emissions record, the fact is this sector is showing a surprisingly strong improvement rate due to its emissions reduction efforts.

Now if those industries showing the lowest rates of improvement could match the oil patch, things might get better faster.

Come on governments, universities, hospitals and you 'non-profits' - it's time to pull up your socks.

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