When Alberta Premier Alison Redford came to Washington this year to urge approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, she argued that producing tar sands oil generates much less global warming pollution today than it did two decades ago.
It would be wrong, Redford reasoned, for the U.S. to block the project on climate change grounds.
But a new Canadian government report on the country's greenhouse gas emissions tells a different story. The federal data reveal that the carbon dioxide emissions associated with a barrel of tar sands bitumen have been rising, not falling, in recent years—a trend that may well continue.
The report got scant attention in the United States, but its findings could spell trouble for Canada as government leaders lobby the Obama administration to approve the Keystone, intended to carry growing supplies of tar sands crude to refineries in Texas.
Oil companies are spending millions of dollars on experiments to find a viable way to bring the emissions of tar sands production under control. Some producers say that success may lie around the corner. But the government's annual emissions trends report does not assume that any breakthroughs are coming soon.
Environment Canada, the federal agency that produced the Oct. 24 report, said it now appears unlikely that Canada can accomplish the steep greenhouse gas reductions it promised for 2020—17 percent below 2005 levels, a goal it shares with the United States.
Much of the gap it predicts is due to rising emissions from Alberta's oil patch.
President Obama has said his decision on whether to grant the Keystone pipeline a permit will hinge on the amount of CO2 the project contributes to the atmosphere. And he has urged Canada to do more to rein in its tar sands pollution.
"Our national interest will be served only if this project doesn't significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon dioxide pollution," Obama said in June.
Canada expects its oil sands production to increase to 3.3 million barrels a day in 2020, tripling from 1.1 million in 2005.
To offset the carbon emissions from that growth, the carbon intensity of tar sands production would have to be cut by 66 percent over those years.
The challenge is enormous not just because time is short and the technologies are immature, but also because tar sands extraction has been shifting from strip mining to more carbon-intensive in-situ mining.
"In recent years, some efficiency improvements have plateaued as technological improvements have been negated by shifts to more energy-intensive extraction techniques," the report said.
The agency predicts that Canada's annual emissions will rise to 734 million tons in 2020—a nearly 5 percent increase from 2011 levels and ever further from the government's goal of 612 million tons by 2020.
Tale of Two Carbon Pollution Trends
In 2009 at the Copenhagen climate conference, both the United States and Canada promised to reduce their carbon emissions by 17 percent of 2005 levels by 2020, with steeper reductions expected to follow in later decades.
To meet those ambitious targets, the two countries have to maintain the gains they have made in recent decades in shrinking the "emissions intensity" of their economies—that is, the amount of CO2 emissions per unit of gross domestic product.
That can be accomplished partly by adopting energy-saving technologies, such as more fuel-efficient cars. Gains also occur when economic activity shifts from higher-emission sectors like iron and steel to lower-emission enterprises like writing computer software.
But because so much carbon comes from industries that produce energy, progress also requires moving away from burning the dirtiest fuels.
For the United States, the biggest energy culprit is consumption of coal for electric power—which the Obama administration has moved to control with newly proposed regulations. In Canada, it is production of bitumen, the thick, dirty petroleum in its vast tar sands reserves.
An annual report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration released on Oct. 21, offered encouraging data about recent progress in the United States.
It shows that not only has the United States been reducing its rate of energy consumption—it has also been reducing the carbon intensity of its energy supplies as it gets off coal and turns increasingly to natural gas. (Production of renewable energy such as wind grew, too, but was offset by reductions of hydroelectric power.)
U.S. energy-related emissions of greenhouse gases are now at their lowest levels since 1994 and 12 percent below their 2007 peak. Part of the recent decline was due to the recession and to manufacturing going overseas. But overall, the U.S. achieved a 5.1 percent reduction last year in energy use per dollar of economic output. And the energy it did use was cleaner than before.
Taking all those factors into account, the Obama administration recently said that the nation is "within the range" of meeting its Copenhagen goals, at least if new regulations on power plants and other facets of Obama’s climate action plan take hold. That plan, announced in June, is based on executive actions that don't require Congressional approval.
The picture in Canada is quite different.
The emissions intensity of its economy, too, has been improving because of conservation measures similar to those taken by the United States. Canada cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 4.8 percent between 2005 and 2011, during a time when its economy grew 8.4 percent.