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Canadian crude oil production to increase 3300% by 2100

I’ve read a lot of wild exaggerations in the debate surrounding the oilsands, and specifically around the Keystone XL pipeline, but I think this study from the Center for Global Development takes the cake.  The study, in effect, equates 21% of the effects of climate change due to projected global emissions between now and 2100 to oilsands development.  No, really – here’s the direct quote:

The Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board currently estimates the deposit’s potential yield at 1,804 billion barrels of crude oil (AERCB 2011). For this analysis, I assume that the entire deposit will be mined and the extracted crude oil burned by 2100. Using standard conversion factors, full combustion would produce an atmospheric release of 209 gigatons of carbon, which would in turn raise the atmospheric CO2 concentration by 99 parts per million.2 This is 21.3 percent of scenario A2’s projected global increase of 464 ppm by 2100.

So, let’s put some of these numbers into perspective.  In order to extract and burn 1.8 trillion barrels of oil between now and 2100, you’d need average production of 54 million barrels per day.  That’s more than the combined production of OPEC, Russia, Canada, the US, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. It’s 6 times current Saudi Arabian production.  Current Canadian oilsands production is 1.7 million barrels per day. Despite this, somehow the authors feel comfortable assuming, for the sake of illustration, that Canadian production might average 3300% above today’s levels between now and 2100 – a sustained rate of annual production growth of 25.2% per year.

But, that’s not where the craziness ends.  You see, 1.8 trillion barrels is the measure of original oil in place – the total hydrocarbon resource. Only a small fraction of that volume is recoverable given forecast prices with current technology – oilsands reserves.  The current estimate of that quantity is 170 billion barrels, or less than 10% of the original oil in place.  The current estimate of ultimately recoverable reserves (you can find all of this information and the definitions of terms here) is 315 billion barrels.  So, even if we produced all of the oil we conceivable could by 2100, given forecast prices and current technology, we’d average about 10 million barrels per day of oilsands production – approximately the volume produced by Saudi Arabia today. That alone seems wildly implausible.

But, let’s give the CGD the benefit of the doubt – let’s assume that Canada does ramp production up to 10 million barrels per day by 2040 and maintains that level to 2100, consistent with predictions Bill McKibben has made with respect to Canada’s ultimate goal. Using the NRDC’s figures for life-cycle emissions of 0.6t/bbl so you know I’m not sand-bagging, that would amount to cumulative emissions of about 160 billion tons of CO2.  How does that compare to the IPCC A2 scenario used in the CGD study? You can check for yourself here, but global cumulative emissions under A2 are forecast to be about 6210 billion tons of CO2 between 2010 and 2100. So, if we assume that Canadian oilsands production averages current Saudi production over the next 88 years, oilsands will be responsible for 2.6% of the cumulative emissions over that time horizon.  There’s a big difference between 2.6% and 21%.

So, how significant might oilsands emissions be?  Most production forecasts estimate oilsands increasing at roughly 6% per year in the near term, reaching 5 million barrels per day by 2030.  At that rate, oilsands life cycle emissions (assuming no increase in technology) would likely be about 1 billion tons of CO2 per year.  The IPCC A2 scenario cited by the CGD predicts that global emissions in 2030 will be about 54 billion tons per year.  Again, in a realistic growth scenario, oilsands accounts for a significant quantity of greenhouse gases, but the CGD study over-estimates those impacts by at least a factor of 10.

After reading this study, I decided to look into the CGD.  I was stopped in my tracks by this phrase, on a page marked “for educators”:

Operating where rigorous research meets practical ideas, CGD publishes works that range from the highly technical to the easily read…we hope these materials will be useful to students as well as to educators teaching about global development.

I hope that any educator making use of this report will take the time to second guess this piece of rigorous research.



14 responses to “Canadian crude oil production to increase 330014 by 2100”

  1. Cody

    Great post Andrew, I love how you have completley broken down the numbers they used to arrive at their outlandish estimate and proved beyond any doubt how inaccurate they are. There is no doubt of how false their report is. Thank You for putting this together!

  2. Robert McClelland

    I think you’ve completely missed the point of the study. It’s merely a theoretical assessment of the damage the tarsands could cause, not a prediction of how much damage they will cause. As for the calculations, you’re not calculating the same thing. “This is 21.3 percent of scenario A2’s projected global increase of 464 ppm by 2100.” is not the same as “…oilsands will be responsible for 2.6% of the cumulative emissions over that time horizon.”

    The real knock against the study though, is that it’s simply too narrow to be of any practical use. A better study would have looked at a much broader range of scenarios from best case to worst case instead of just the latter.

  3. Richard Dixon

    Sorry Robert, I think Andrew has hit it right on. Wheeler’s intent is not theoretical. To quote Wheeler:

    “To summarize, the estimates in this note suggest that full exploitation of Canada’s oil sands deposit would impose significant agricultural productivity losses on over 3 billion people in the developing world, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.”

    Nothing in that statement suggests theoretical. Wheeler is right however. I will use it in my upcoming energy course however – on how not to do a credible study, even theoretical.

    On another note, as I mentioned in our own analysis expect to see further “studies” like this over the 2012 period.


  4. Joel

    Great post!

    Reminds me of the report that estimated a $1,000/tonne social cost of carbon.



  5. Patrick

    Sigh. GW is bad enough on the actual evidence. No need to cook the books. And it’s a huge distraction from the real policy problem of realistic carbon pricing. IMO, everything else is side show.

  6. Busy days. « Cory Morgan ranting and raving

    […] Canadian crude oil production to increase 3300% by 2100 […]

  7. Jan Haiste-Shields

    With this craziness in mind, who was burning the fossil fuels that melted the ice age??!

  8. Randolph Haluza-DeLay

    Yeah, I hate seeing such gross exaggerations. As Patrick wrote, it’s bad enough that exaggeration shouldn’t be needed. However, let’s be wary of using rates, such as the percent that oil sands development adds to projected carbon emmissions. For climate changes, it is the amount of emmissions, not the ratio that matters. A small piece of a bigger pie may be more total emmissions than a bigger piece of a smaller pie. In the old pollution language, oil sands are a point source.

  9. Rod

    Rigourous isn’t a word. FYI.

  10. opit

    I think I`ve read enough on the `climate crisis` to say that `cooking the books` – and no, I don`t mean just that noise about emails – and whipping up exaggerated claims is Standard Operating Procedure. It makes it difficult to take seriously any representation whatsoever about AGW except as a con to levy an international tax payable to the worthies warning us of the danger.
    Biased BBC complains the Beebs has been doing such routinely for 3 decades.
    Burt Rutan made some calculations if you care to have a look at such. Regardless, I call political football on the whole affair : which posits an identification and measurement of various processes which jack the resultant vector like a yo-yo. Yet it is claimed useful projections can be made with a simple model and a paucity of data points…..which should not be sufficient to build such a model ! Let alone form a practical and reasonable basis for projection.
    What do you make of the hash of articles – and commentary – in

  11. McDermott in NYC

    Apparently CDG doesn’t read the newspaper either. If they did, they’d understand the extent to which the oil sand’s Tory protagonists have messed up the global popularity contest with just about everyone — making CDGs development projection all the more fanciful.

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