The oil sands on the path to total emissions reductions

This follows more than a decade of producers decreasing GHG emissions per barrel
By Deborah Jaremko

Canada’s oil sands sec­tor is head­ed towards a major envi­ron­men­tal improve­ment with­in the next five years. Accord­ing to analy­sis by con­sul­tants IHS Mark­it, total oil sands green­house gas (GHG) emis­sions are on track to start going down.

This fol­lows more than a decade of pro­duc­ers con­sis­tent­ly decreas­ing GHG emis­sions per bar­rel, oth­er­wise known as emis­sions intensity.

Improve­ments Lead to Absolute Reductions

“Inten­si­ty improve­ments can add up, and they can result in absolute emis­sion reduc­tions,” says Kevin Birn, IHS Markit’s head of GHG estimation.

“If the indus­try keeps doing what it’s been doing pret­ty much con­sec­u­tive­ly for the last 11 years, then it is des­tined to over­take a slow­ing pace of pro­duc­tion growth which has frankly out­paced improve­ments over the past decade.”

Oil sands pro­duc­tion is expect­ed to con­tin­ue increas­ing, albeit at a slow­er pace. IHS Markit’s most recent fore­cast sees oil sands pro­duc­tion ris­ing to 3.6 mil­lion bar­rels per day in 2030, near­ly 650,000 bar­rels per day more than in 2021.

IHS Mark­it reports that aver­age oil sands emis­sions inten­si­ty has declined by 20% since 2009. Pri­or analy­sis has shown oil sands to be with­in the range of oth­er crude oil con­sumed in North Amer­i­ca, Birn says.

Improved Effi­cien­cy, Less Emis­sion-Inten­sive Oper­a­tions Are Key

The improve­ment comes from a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors includ­ing improved effi­cien­cy at projects that com­bine oil sands min­ing and upgrad­ing, and a larg­er share of pro­duc­tion from less emis­sions-inten­sive operations.

Emis­sions decreas­es in the future could be even more dra­mat­ic than IHS Mark­it cur­rent­ly projects as the indus­try focus­es more on total emis­sions. The Oil Sands Path­ways to Net Zero con­sor­tium, for exam­ple, which rep­re­sents more than 95 per cent of pro­duc­tion, has a 2030 goal to reduce total emis­sions by 22 mil­lion tonnes rel­a­tive to 2018.

Total oil sands emis­sions were 81 mil­lion tonnes in 2020, accord­ing to the lat­est data from the Gov­ern­ment of Canada.