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Exclusive Interview: Why Tar Sands Oil Is More Polluting and Why It Matters

Adam Brandt, global expert on the carbon footprint of fuels, explains why oil sands' 20% greater greenhouse gas emissions are significant.

May 22, 2012
Oil sands upgrader

The debate over the Keystone XL oil pipeline heated up again last week after the Congressional Research Service issued a report saying the project could raise U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 21 million metric tons a year—the equivalent of adding 4 million cars to the road.

The Congressional Research Service is a branch of the Library of Congress that conducts policy analysis for lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Released last Tuesday—less than two weeks after TransCanada re-applied for a permit to build the Keystone XL—the report found that crude oil produced from Canadian oil sands (also known as tar sands) emits 14 to 20 percent more planet-warming gases than the conventional oil that is typically found in U.S. refineries.

The report analyzed a number of studies, including a 2011 report by Stanford University professor Adam Brandt, who spoke with InsideClimate News this week about his research.

Brandt is an expert on the greenhouse gas impacts of transportation fuels. His report was commissioned by the European Union, which will decide next year whether to adopt a fuel-quality directive to reduce the transportation sector's carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020. The directive would encourage the use of less carbon-intensive fuels by labeling tar sands oil more polluting than other fuels.

In his interview with InsideClimate News, Brandt said that the Canadian oil sands industry opposes the EU directive because it could set a precedent for other countries. Though stuck in legal limbo, regulators in California have already approved a low-carbon fuel standard, and Northeastern states are considering a similar measure. The debate over oil sands will only intensify as the industry seeks to expand.

The Keystone XL is one of many oil sands pipelines slated for construction in the U.S. over the next five years. If approved, it would transport up to 830,000 barrels a day of oil sands from Alberta to Steele City, Neb. From there, the oil would be shipped to the U.S. Gulf Coast for refining and export via a second pending TransCanada pipeline.

ICN: What makes the oil sands different from conventional crude oil?

Brandt: It's not completely different from conventional oil—they're all hydrocarbons, we produce gasoline and diesel from all of them. It's just that the oil sands are naturally a different sort of resource.

Conventional oil is traditionally produced from subsurface reservoirs that you drill into, and the oil is produced from a [deep] well. The oil sands, in contrast, are near the surface—or a lot of them are. So they can either be extracted via mining methods where you dig up the sand that has the oil—called bitumen—associated with it, or you can drill wells and inject steam into the ground. Because the oil sands is a heavier hydrocarbon, it doesn't flow very well. It's kind of like tar, and it's very viscous. So it's difficult to extract compared to conventional oil.

Once it's at the surface, it's harder to handle. With conventional oil, you can put it right into a pipeline, or you can process it and it can go into a pipeline that goes to a refinery. Bitumen from the oil sands is too viscous to flow, so you have to do some pre-processing. This involves what's called upgrading—which is kind of like refining—or it involves diluting the bitumen with a light hydrocarbon diluent [like] a natural gas liquid…so it will flow through the pipeline. Once you do that then you [can] send it to the refinery.

Because it either requires an upgrading step on-site before it's shipped, or more intensive refining to produce the same gasoline or diesel, the energy intensity and emissions from producing fuels from the oil sands tend to be higher, on average, than conventional crude oil.

ICN: How did you get involved in oil sands research?

Brandt: I was contacted by the European Union to assist with their effort on the fuel-quality directive, which is their regulation that, among other things, attempts to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels. What I did was I tried to compute an industry average value for the greenhouse gas emissions of oil sands operations.

ICN: What did you learn?

Brandt: I found that the oil sands were about 20 percent [23%] higher on a "full fuel cycle" basis, which is the metric [used] by the EU’s fuel-quality directive. This includes everything from extracting the fuel out of the ground, to refining it and burning it in your automobile.

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