A major oilpatch lobby group appears to be speechless after government scientists published new research showing that major oilsands facilities appear to be producing far more pollution than what they have reported publicly.
“Thank you for your request, but we won’t be providing a comment,” said Elisabeth Besson, a spokeswoman from the lobby group, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), in a brief email to National Observer.
In their research, scientists collected data showing that four major oilsands facilities in northern Alberta emitted far more pollution than what they actually reported.
Besson’s response follows months of public criticism from CAPP about the federal government’s efforts to toughen Canada’s environmental laws. The oilpatch lobby group has also been running an aggressive online marketing and public relations campaign that claims the country’s environmental laws are already among the toughest in the world.
But the new research suggests that there are some holes in what Canada is telling the rest of the world about the climate-warming impacts of its vast reserves of crude oil.
The research about the facilities, tested in 2013, provides more evidence that Canada will fail to meet its international climate change goals under the 2015 Paris Agreement. The oilsands, a heavy tar-like oil found beneath the boreal forest in Alberta, represent Canada's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). They also represent most of Canada's 173 billion barrels of reserves of crude, the third largest reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
Air samples collected above four oilsands operations in 2013 show GHG emissions much higher than the companies operating them are require to report. The findings could derail Canada's 2030 reduction targets.
The new peer-reviewed study by government scientists and others was published on Tuesday in the journal, Nature Communications. Based on airplane measurements of emissions, the research suggests that government officials need to revise guidelines currently used to measure carbon dioxide emissions from the oil and gas (O&G) sector.
The study’s lead author, John Liggio, told National Observer that Environment and Climate Change Canada shared its findings with industry representatives over the course of several conference calls and they were receptive to working with the government to “get to the bottom of why there is this discrepancy."
The office of Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna said the federal government was working with emissions-intensive sectors like the oilsands to help them reduce pollution and operate more efficiently, while noting that the industry and government had previously been relying on internationally-accepted standards for measuring greenhouse gas emissions.
“While this is just one study, we are taking these findings seriously and will be reviewing them in light of Canada’s commitment to fight climate change and build a stronger economy,” McKenna’s spokeswoman Sabrina Kim told National Observer.
Kim added that Canada would continue to prepare its GHG inventory in accordance with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change reporting guidelines in line with the international community.
While the oilsands industry — an economic driver for Canada — struggles to deal with selling a discounted product in an increasingly uneconomical landscape, it also faces stiff opposition from some Indigenous groups as well as municipalities, provinces and environmental groups to its efforts to promote the expansion of pipelines that would support growth.
Oilsands extraction is a costly process, requiring vast amounts of energy and water for each barrel of oil.
"The objective of limiting the increase in global temperature to <1.5 °C this century is dependent upon reducing anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to net zero," said the study. "The large contribution of the O&G sector to global GHG emissions underscores the need for accurate sectoral GHG emissions in national inventories."
Canada's pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming by 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 will require a significant shift in the operations of the industry, which has also seen the retreat of global majors and a retrenchment in investment from those that remain amid stagnant prices, particularly for the heavy, sour crude oil of which Alberta has a surplus.
Scientists from Environment and Climate Change Canada, the department in charge of overseeing federal climate action, worked with independent scientists and found the air samples collected on 17 overflights (over 80 hours) of the major oilsands surface mining operations contained carbon emissions between 13 per cent and 123 per cent higher than the company's had reported to the federal government's national inventory under the United Nations convention on climate change.
The report is likely to inflame political debate between the federal Liberal government of Justin Trudeau and Alberta's newly-elected United Conservative Party government ahead of a federal vote due by October.
The province's voters elected Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party to replace Premier Rachel Notley's NDP government last week, and in his victory speech Kenney said opponents were trying to unfairly malign the oil and gas industry and that a "grand bargain" to boost the energy industry while also placating opposition had failed. He plans to repeal the NDP's climate action policies, including its carbon tax, and eliminate a 100 mega tonne (Mt) cap on oil sands GHG emissions.
Even under the U.N.-approved method of counting emissions Canada's current climate policies are "highly insufficient" to meet its international obligations, according to Climate Action Tracker, with economy-wide emissions that would push the Earth's temperature between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels if every country was tracking on a similar trajectory.
The U.N. methodology has companies report the amount of fossil fuel they combust at each source of their operation, from extraction to delivery of crude to refineries. The emissions from fuel use can be fraught with uncertainties though, the study's lead author John Liggio told CBC News.
"You need to know type of fuel combusted, because different fuels use more or less carbon. There could be non-combustion sources like tailing ponds," he said. "There's a number of other things such as the maintenance for example — a possibility that doing the maintenance causes increases in emissions for short periods. It's not a simple calculation."
The four facilities Liggio and the other scientists tested were Syncrude Canada's Mildred Lake, Suncor's Millennium and North Steepbank site, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.'s Horizon mine, and the Albian Jackpine operation, which Canadian Natural has since bought a majority stake in from Shell.
Liggio told National Observer that the department is now collating and processing emissions data from more facilities and including around 10 in situ oilsands operations - where steam is forced at high pressures into the ground to extract hydrocarbons - it tested in the spring and summer of 2018.
He said the Alberta government was also evaluating data collected in partnership with the U.S.’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on a similar aircraft study conducting in 2017-18 to measure methane and some other emissions.
Syncrude's Mildred Lake operation emitted 123 per cent more carbon dioxide emissions than it reported in that year, while Jackpine's pollution was 38 per cent higher, the Horizon mine's output was 36 per cent higher, and Suncor's was 13 per cent more, according to the report.
The findings at best suggest that data on the emissions of the oil and gas sector "may be more uncertain that previously considered," it said.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an industry lobby group, declined to comment on the research.
The unaccounted emissions are 64 per cent higher in aggregate that what industry reported from the four sites, and at 17 Mt per year is equivalent to the annual emissions from a city the size of Toronto or Seattle, the report said.
Globally, the oil and gas industry accounts for more than a third of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Canada's latest report to the United Nations said that the oilsands polluted more than all of B.C. or Quebec in 2017.
The report said that accurate human-caused GHG emissions data informs national and international climate policies," the researchers write. "Such anthropogenic GHG emission data ultimately underpin carbon pricing and trading policies."
The federal government has also introduced new regulations to crack down on methane emissions, another powerful greenhouse gas, from the oil and gas sector, that requires more measurements and reporting from industry and significant reductions in their GHGs. This would require a 40 to 45 per cent reduction of annual emissions below 2012 levels by 2025, equivalent to taking five million cars off the road for a year.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 7:31 p.m. ET on April 23, 2019 to include comments from the office of the federal environment minister, the lead author of the report and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.