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How Much CO2 Comes from Alberta Crude Oil? Much More Than You Think

Albian Sands Village and Jack Pine Mine
Albian Sands
CNRL Albian Village and Jack Pine Mine, northeast of Fort McMurray. Photo by jasonwoodhead23, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How much CO2 do you think Alberta’s crude oil will emit between now and 2050? The answer is probably: much more than you realize. Or to put it another way: as much as the annual emissions of 5 billion cars. That’s certainly enough to endanger our efforts to limit global heating to 1.5℃. Read on if you want to know just how much Alberta’s crude oil matters in our unfolding climate emergency.

Alberta is a crude oil powerhouse, with greenhouse gas emissions to match. If you consider our province’s current crude oil reserves, recent production rates, future production scenarios, and the life cycle emissions of our crude oil, it’s clear that Alberta is one of the world’s top oil producers — and a major source of GHG emissions.

In this post, I examine Alberta’s crude oil reserves, production, and emissions in detail. In a companion piece on natural gas, I examine Alberta’s natural gas reserves, production, and emissions. Then I’ll total the emissions numbers for both fuels. (I’ll omit coal from the total for now, because we don’t currently have reliable estimates for future production.)

Putting all these numbers together can help us understand the role our province plays in climate change. Alberta is a major source of emissions. It is also poised to use up a large share of the carbon budget humanity must respect to limit global heating to 1.5℃.

Let’s start with oil.

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Alberta’s Crude Oil Reserves

In global terms, Canada is the world’s fourth largest holder of oil reserves, with proven reserves of 170.3 billion barrels (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2021 data).

Most of Canada’s oil lies in Alberta. At the end of 2021, the Alberta Government estimated proven reserves at 160.1 billion barrels of crude bitumen and 1.6 billion barrels of crude oil (PDF icon), for a total of 161.7 billion barrels (Alberta Energy Outlook – ST98, 2022 Executive Summary).

Alberta’s reserves are so large that our province could stand in for Canada in a ranking of the world’s top reserve holders. In fact, if we considered Alberta as a separate jurisdiction, it would still rank as the world’s fourth largest reserve holder. A chart of global reserves with Alberta’s reserves overlying Canada’s would look like this:

Global Crude Oil Reserves (chart)

Want to check our facts? The data on global reserves comes from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and you can download it yourself.

Alberta’s Crude Oil Production

Let’s take a look at production. Again, we’ll use the U.S. Energy Information Administration as our source for national figures. Canada comes in fourth, with 4,439 million barrels per day of oil production.

For Alberta, we turn again to the Alberta Energy Outlook – ST98, 2022 Executive Summary, which gives 2021 production figures of 1.189 billion barrels of bitumen and 0.15 billion barrels of crude oil (PDF icon), for an annual total of 1,339 billion barrels. That works out to 3,668 million barrels per day. It puts Alberta in seventh place globally.

Alberta’s production is so large that if we considered our province as a separate jurisdiction, it would rank as the world’s sixth largest producer. If we overlay Canada’s and Alberta’s production figures, the chart would look like this:

Global Crude Oil Production (chart)

Want to check our facts? The data on global crude oil production comes from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and you can download it yourself.

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Canada Energy Regulator Production Scenarios

I wrote about CER production scenarios in my last post about our fossil fuel emissions, and I want to return to that subject now.

The CER issued its most recent scenarios in the fall of 2021. As in previous years, it issued two scenarios — Current Policy Scenarios and Evolving Policy Scenarios. Both scenarios envision Canada’s crude oil production until 2050, based on projected oil prices, which are in turn affected by the energy-related climate policies pursued around the world.

  • Current Policy Scenarios assume that energy-related climate policy remains unchanged from what is in place at the time of modelling.
  • Evolving Policy Scenarios assume that global energy-related climate policies expand at the same pace as they have been in recent years.

The key distinction is that the Evolving Policy Scenarios envision greater levels of climate action, both domestically and globally. They foresee lower levels of demand — and hence production — than the Current Policy Scenarios. 

Given the international push towards net zero, it’s almost inconceivable that our fossil fuel production will align with the Current Policy Scenarios. Even the Evolving Policy Scenarios are bullish on fossil fuels. But at this moment, they are the scenarios of record.

I focussed on the totals for Alberta and for Canada as a whole. These totals roll up figures for all the different types of oil produced in Alberta and Canada. Since most of Alberta’s production consists of conventional heavy oil or bitumen, I believe this is a sound methodology.  Lighter varieties like conventional light oil and field condensate make up only a small amount of Alberta’s production.

Using these numbers, I prepared a chart. It shows that:

  • The CER believes Canada’s oil production will rise until 2032, peaking at 5.8 million barrels per day (or 2.1 billion barrels that year).
  • Most of Canada’s oil — around 85 per cent in a typical year — will come from Alberta.

I’ll share a Google Sheet with actual production numbers with you towards the end of this post. But for now, I want to underscore the production increase expected for the next several years — hardly a prudent response to the climate emergency.

Here’s the chart.

Canada & Alberta Crude Oil Production

Want to verify this data? It comes from the Canada Energy Regulator, and you can download the same data yourself.

Calculating Alberta’s Crude Oil Emissions

I downloaded the Evolving Policies Scenario to create spreadsheets I could use to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions our crude oil would generate if future production follows that scenario. As I mentioned in my last post on this subject, the basic equation used to calculate emissions is as follows:

units_of_fossil_fuel x energy_content x emissions_factor = GHG_emissions

where:

  • units of fossil_fuel = units of fuel produced — for example, barrels of oil or cubic metres of natural gas
  • energy_content = joules of energy per unit of fossil fuel
  • emissions_factor = grams of carbon per joule

It’s important to note that a life cycle emissions calculation is an estimate of future emissions, not an exact measurement of a known quantity. The results depend on the benchmarks you use, and there are many. In any particular benchmark, the variables include the type of crude oil, the method of refining, the distance to market, and the end uses of the refined products, to name a few.

IHS Markit Benchmark

The tricky part of emissions calculations is finding the right benchmarks to use for energy content and emissions factor. To produce realistic yet conservative calculations, I relied on the IHS Markit report, Comparing GHG Intensity of the Oil Sands and the Average US Crude Oil, May 2014. You can download this report, and many others, at the S&P Global Canadian Oil Sands Dialogue page.

The IHS Markit report examined wells-to-wheels emissions for a variety of crude oils refined and consumed in the United States. I focussed on the United States because it receives around 80 per cent of the oil we produce here in Alberta.

The IHS Markit report used a wide boundary to measure the life cycle emissions from those crudes. A wide boundary calculation includes all emissions produced during the life cycle of the oil, including emissions at production facilities and refineries (tight boundary), plus emissions resulting from the fuels used in the production and refining, such as the gas used to generate electricity and steam used in the refining process. Another name for this sort of calculation is life cycle analysis.

Typically, production and refining comprise around 20 to 30 per cent of all emissions resulting from a barrel of crude oil. The heavier, higher-sulphur crude we produce here in Alberta requires extensive energy inputs during refining, which makes it significantly more GHG-intensive overall. That’s what people mean when they say that oil sands crude is “dirty.” They’re referring to the upstream emissions resulting from the extra energy required to refine our heavier oil.

The remaining emissions — 70 to 80 per cent — occur during end stage combustion.

Still, Alberta crude is not the only GHG-intensive type of crude processed in U.S. refineries. In fact, the IHS Markit analysis found that 45 per cent of all crudes processed in the U.S. were within the same GHG intensity range as those from the Canadian oil sands. That is, nearly half the crudes refined in the U.S. are just as GHG-intensive as Alberta crudes.

But for this post, I calculate Alberta’s crude oil emissions using the emissions factors IHS identifies for the average Canadian oil sands barrel produced in 2012. It’s a realistic, yet conservative, benchmark. 

The IHS Markit analysis uses the following emission factors:

  • 172 kg of CO2-equivalent emissions per barrel for production and refining
  • 385 kg of CO2-equivalent emissions per barrel for end-use (that is, combustion). IHS Markit used this factor for all crude oil refined and consumed in the United States.

I used these factors to calculate the life cycle emissions we can expect if Alberta oil production follows the CER Evolving Policies Scenario between now and 2050. You can review the numbers and emissions calculations yourself in this Google Sheet. But the number I want you to notice is the one in Cell K36: 26,975 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

That’s how much carbon dioxide our crude oil will emit if we produce and ship the amounts envisioned by the CER Evolving Policies Scenario between now and 2050: 26,975 megatonnes.

How much CO2 is that?

It’s equivalent to the annual emissions of 5,864,130,435 passenger vehicles (at 4.6 tonnes per vehicle).

It exceeds the combined 2019 emissions of the world’s top 10 emitting countries — China, United States, India, Russia, Japan, Germany, South Korea, Iran, Canada, and Saudi Arabia.

Wow, Alberta. That’s a lot of CO2.

 Alberta’s fossil fuels are a significant driver of climate change. They cause extensive damage, both here at home and around the world. They also belong to us — the people of Alberta. They are produced, with our consent, under provincial jurisdiction. We are responsible for the emissions from our fuels — all of them, from well to wheels.

Canada’s Energy Future 2023

After this post was first published, the CER issued its long awaited net-zero analysis. The production numbers changed, and so did the calculated emissions. You’ll find an update in my EF2023 crude oil analysis.

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