- Since 1990, GHG emissions associated with every barrel of oil sands crude produced have been reduced by 26%. Source: Environment Canada 2012.
- CO2 is the primary man-made greenhouse gas. Other greenhouse gases include methane, nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).
- Total oil sands GHG emissions in 2010 were 48 megatonnes Source: Environment Canada 2012. This is equivalent to 3.5% of the emissions from the U.S. coal-fired power-generation sector in 2009.
- Oil sands account for 6.9% of Canada’s GHG emissions and just over 0.16% (1/600th) of global GHG emissions. Source: Environment Canada 2012 and United Nations
- Canada, with 0.5% of the world’s population, produces 2% of GHG emissions.
- On a full cycle basis, about 30% of oil-related GHG emissions come from exploration
- On a full cycle basis, about 70% of oil-related GHG emissions come from combustion, primarily automobile exhaust.
- Oil sands crude has similar CO2 emissions to other heavy oils and is 6% more intensive than the U.S. crude supply average on a wells-to-wheels basis. “Wells-to-wheels” measures CO2 emissions from the start of oil production through to combustion.
Wells-to-Wheels CO2 Emissions from Various Sources of Crude
Source: Jacobs Consulting 2009
The nature of the oil sands makes them energy-intensive to produce. Energy is needed to transport the earth, to break it down into smaller pieces and to heat the water used to separate the oil from the sand. Energy is also used in other processes, such as producing the hydrogen needed to upgrade the heavy crude. All these steps produce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions such as CO2 – a contributing factor to climate change.
The challenge is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while the demand for energy – and the amount of energy the world is consuming – is growing. Global demand for energy is expected to increase 40% by 2035, according to the International Energy Agency.
Source: United Nations Statistics Division
Canada’s oil sands industry continues to reduce GHG emissions intensity. According to Environment Canada, since 1990, GHG emissions associated with every barrel of oil sands crude produced have been reduced by 26%.
Work is in progress on a variety of new technologies to lower GHG emissions, and capture and store CO2.
Reducing emissions from in situ oil sands drilling
In situ drilling operations require significant amounts of energy to generate steam that is then injected deep underground into the oil sands formation to warm the heavy oil so it can be pumped to the surface.
In situ producers have made significant progress in reducing the amount of steam required to produce heavy oil in recent years. There are also several technologies nearing commercial implementation that have the potential to further reduce GHG emissions per barrel to levels that are equivalent to or better than imported conventional oil.
Existing projects using standard steam injection have continued to refine the in situ recovery process and are achieving reductions of production-related GHG emissions. Advancements include the use of electric submersible pumps, drilling of additional production wells to take greater advantage of reservoir heating and overall improvements in energy efficiency.
IN SITU COMBUSTION
Technologies such as the Toe-to-Heel Air Injection (THAI®) process inject air into the oil sands in order to create underground combustion that warms the thick bitumen and partially upgrades it before it is extracted.
Find out more about how THAI® works
Numerous companies are exploring technologies to partially or completely replace steam with solvents (such as propane) to dilute the bitumen and allow it to flow. Results from several field pilots have demonstrated the ability to reduce steam requirements (and GHG emissions) by up to 50% in addition to a corresponding reduction in water use. Full solvent recovery has been successfully demonstrated at laboratory scale and could potentially reduce GHG emissions from production by up to 85%. Commercial applications of this technology are expected to follow upon completion of the pilots.
Find out more about Solvent Recovery
Reducing emissions in oil sands mining
Sources of GHG emissions in oil sands mining include the energy required to mine and transport the oil sands, to separate the oil from the sand, and to process the oil. Commercial oil sands mining in Canada began in the late 1960s. Since that time, continual advancements in technology and energy efficiency have resulted in significant reductions in GHG emissions per barrel. The oil sands mining industry continues to develop new technologies that will further reduce GHG emissions per barrel in coming years.
WARM WATER EXTRACTION
Oil sands mining companies, such as Syncrude Canada Ltd., are advancing technology to reduce the temperature of process water used to separate the bitumen from the sand. Syncrude has been able to reduce water temperatures from approximately 80° C to 35° C at its Aurora mine. The reduced temperature results in approximately a third less energy consumption, and correspondingly lower GHG emissions.
Oil sands operations require steam, which is usually created using natural gas-fired boilers. The process of creating this steam can be simultaneously used to generate electricity. This process, referred to as cogeneration, creates a highly efficient energy system that produces both steam and electricity from a single source. Oil sands cogeneration plants are sized according to the facility’s steam requirements, which often results in the generation of more electricity than the facility requires. This excess electricity is sold back into the electricity grid which means there is less natural gas and coal used elsewhere in the province to meet Alberta’s electricity needs, significantly reducing GHG and other air emissions in the province. All existing oil sands mines and all but a few small in situ (drilling) projects have cogeneration facilities.
CARBON CAPTURE AND STORAGE (CCS)
CCS has been identified by governments, industry, researchers and stakeholders as a key option in significantly reducing GHG emissions in the future. CCS is well understood from a technical perspective but widespread implementation is limited by challenging economics and a lack of infrastructure. In 2008, the Alberta government committed $2 billion to CCS development and the federal government has committed an additional $1 billion. Industry is investing heavily in CCS development, and there are currently several CCS projects operating in western Canada, including Cenovus Energy’s Weyburn Project and PennWest Energy’s Joffre Project.
As the required infrastructure is developed, CCS has the potential to significantly reduce GHG emissions from the oil sands. Capture and storage of readily available CO2 streams such as those associated with hydrogen production facilities at upgraders may be feasible in the near to mid-term with investment in pipeline and injection infrastructure. A number of these types of oil sands projects have been selected by the Alberta government to receive co-funding from the $2 billion CCS investment fund. The projects include: Alberta Carbon Trunk Line (Enhance Energy and Northwest Upgrading), Quest Project (Shell Canada Limited, Chevron Canada Limited and Marathon Oil Canada Corporation), and Swan Hills (Swan Hills Synfuels).
Full CCS, including the capture of CO2 from combustion flue gases, will require significantly more investment and government and industry are working to make it feasible in the long term. It is likely that full CCS will be applied at coal-fired electricity generation facilities prior to deployment in the oil sands as it is more cost-effective in that application given the larger and more concentrated point sources of CO2.
Find out more about CCS projects
More efficient operations help reduce GHGs. Small steps like minimizing leaks in equipment – also known as fugitive emissions – can have big results.
Find out more about Reducing Fugitive Emissions
The oil sands industry is researching how geothermal energy from deep in the earth could provide a low-emission alternative to provide heat and steam in the oil sands production process.
Find out more about Geothermal Energy