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.