Here’s an interesting statistic: Every single week, somewhere in China, two newly constructed coal-fired power plants fire up. The largest coal-fired power plant in the world, in Taiwan, emits about 42 megatonnes of carbon dioxide every year. Some of the biggest U.S. plants put out between 16 million and 25 million tonnes. But even if China’s building much smaller plants — ones emitting between one and two million tonnes, say — at a rate of two new plants a week, that means the Chinese are adding an annual greenhouse gas burden to the world’s atmosphere of somewhere between 100 and 200 million tonnes, or megatonnes, every year. If the plants are large ones, that number could be several hundred megatonnes of carbon dioxide being pushed out every single year.
The entire oilsands industry emits, every year, 45 MT.
In an ethical country like Canada, we obviously take the environment a lot more seriously than the Chinese regime does: it’s why we hear so much concern about the oilsands carbon footprint from NGOs, politicians and in the media. You won’t hear nearly as much criticism in China, or Venezuela, for that matter. The fact that Canadians care so much about the planet—and that we have the freedom to express our concerns—is one of the many reasons that we know Canada is a more ethically minded country than most. So, if we want to ensure that we minimize the impact our industries have on the atmosphere, then paying close attention to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the oilsands has to be a priority. And it is: According to Environment Canada’s measurements, the oilsands has reduced its per barrel GHG output by 29% since 1990. Despite massive expansion of oilsands production in the last two decades, Canada’s oil companies have managed to cut their per barrel carbon output by nearly a third.
As impressive as that is, Canadians want oilsands producers to do even better, and at this rate, there’s no reason to expect that they can’t. Every company operating in Northern Alberta is working to minimize its greenhouse gas footprint, and Alberta’s was the first provincial government to implement a carbon tax on its major emitters, using the proceeds from any penalties imposed on companies exceeding their carbon cap to fund research into carbon-reduction technology.
Still, with all the criticism and pressure that Alberta and the oilsands have faced worldwide for the greenhouse gases emitted there, it’s vital to maintain perspective. The oilsands are one of Canada’s most vital industries, spinning off billions of dollars annually into the economy, and employing tens of thousands of workers, from First Nations to Newfoundland, and yet, they are responsible for roughly 6.5% of all of Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Since the entire Canadian economy is responsible for just 0.3% of the whole world’s natural and manmade carbon emissions, GHGs from the oilsands total just over one-hundredth of one percent of all the greenhouse gases going up into the atmosphere, or 0.015%. Farts emitted from all the cows and pigs on Canada’s farms emit more than that.
In fact, after a total “well to wheel” accounting for GHGs, oil from other countries is responsible for a greater output of GHGs per barrel than is oilsands oil: Because Nigeria—a major exporter to the U.S.—recklessly burns off the natural gas emitted by its oil production, Alberta’s oilsands oil already has a 20% lower footprint than oil from that country. Meantime the U.S. government’s National Energy Technology Laboratory estimates that Venezuela’s “ultraheavy” oil emits at least as much, and possibly more, GHGs per barrel than the oilsands. As the world’s reserves of the lightest crude oil run out, heavier oil is becoming a greater part of every country’s energy mix. Already, the average barrel of pure oilsands oil comes with a carbon footprint not much more than 10% higher than the average world’s blended barrel. That is certain to shrink even smaller in the coming years.
But the oilsands are just one small part of the world’s energy supply, and when it comes to carbon emissions, as the proliferation of Chinese coal plants shows, the oilsands are a relatively minor issue compared to some of the other challenges the world must face if we want to reduce CO2 output. America’s coal-fired power plants, too, output more GHGs than the oilsands: about 60 times as much. The Chinese government estimates that within a decade, its coal-powered economy will have developed to the point where its emitting 330 times more carbon dioxide than Canada’s oilsands.
None of these are a good excuse for Canadians to take their eye off the ball when it comes to reducing our own oil industry’s impacts, and we care far too much about the environment to ignore the effects that even one of our most vital industries is having on the planet. But it is important to put every problem in perspective, particularly in light of some of the dramatic anti-oilsands rhetoric being spun by opponents of ethical oil. Canada’s oilsands are responsible for a fraction of the country’s GHG emissions; the entire Canadian economy is responsible for a fraction of the world’s GHG emissions; and while emissions from the oilsands fall per barrel, there are many energy sources presenting far more serious climate challenges than the oilsands do, and those other challenges, unfortunately, are only getting worse.