How Large are the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions from the Oil Sands?

It is easy to be confused on this point. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver says that the oil sands are only one thousandth of one per cent of global emissions. Opponents of the oil sands say the emissions are the fastest growing area of Canada’s emissions. Who is right?

Both are. (Although Oliver is exaggerating, his general point is correct.)

At current levels of emissions, the oil sands emit about 49 million tonnes of GHG. Global emissions in 2010 hit an all-time high of 30 gigatonnes (30 billion tonnes) of GHG. (Environment Canada stats.) So Oliver’s math is a bit off, but whether it’s one tenth of one per cent (more accurate) or one thousandth of one percent of global emissions, as Oliver claims, is not really the point.

Every nation on earth must reduce their emissions. Canada’s emissions are growing and the primary reason our emissions are growing is the oil sands. The process of open-pit mining (or even the less disruptive in situ process) and then using water and energy to pull the bitumen (about 10% by volume of the original soils) uses a lot of energy. That is why bitumen crude is higher in carbon content and is generally referred to as, “Dirty Oil.”

On current projections the amount of GHG from the oil sands is predicted to climb from 49 million tonnes to 92 million tonnes by 2020. That’s more GHG from the tar sands by 2020 than our entire passenger car fleet.