Carbon capture and storage cannot significantly reduce tar sands emissions says new report

October 26, 2009

The study produced by The Co-operative Financial Services and WWF-UK debunks the idea, lauded by oil companies and the Canadian government, that carbon capture and storage (CCS) will significantly counter the high levels of greenhouse gases emitted in the production of oil from tar sands deposits in Alberta, Canada. 

The production of tar sands oil is a highly energy intensive process and emits on average three times more CO2 than conventional oil production. Canada’s proven tar sands reserves are 173 billion barrels of oil, second only to Saudi Arabia.

The report examines the potential for CCS to prevent CO2 from entering the atmosphere as a result of tar sands production and concludes that the process could not possibly achieve what has been claimed.

(Pictured right: Open-cast tar sand mine, Alberta. Canada © Jiri Rezac WWF-UK)

The study finds:

  • Whilst the amount of CO2 emitted during production needs to be reduced by around 85% to make tar sands oil comparable with conventional oil, even the most optimistic forecasts for CCS see production emissions reduced by 10 to 30% at selected locations by 2020 and 30 to 50% across the industry by 2050.
  • Even under the most optimistic scenarios for the application of CCS, the projected production emissions from tar sands developments would be greater than the whole of Canada’s 2050 carbon budget were it to reduce emissions by 80% compared with 1990 levels, as the climate science requires.
  • The maximum potential of CCS would be insufficient to reduce lifecycle emissions of tar sands oil to levels needed to meet emerging international low carbon fuel standards such as those in California and the EU.

Carbon Capture and Storage in the Alberta Oil Sands - A Dangerous Myth (PDF 2 MB)

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Paul Monaghan, Head of Social Goals at the Co-operative Financial Services said: “Last year we published a report which found that Canada’s tar sands could increase atmospheric CO2 by more than 10 parts per million, which would take us right to the edge of runaway climate change. The industry’s response was that CCS would address this threat. Today’s report shows that even the most wildly optimistic scenarios for the development of CCS fail to bring emissions down to those of today’s conventional fossil fuels.”

David Norman, director of campaigns at WWF-UK added, “The application of CCS technology to oil sands is simply too little, too late, and too expensive to qualify as a climate solution. Investing billions in unproven CCS technology for tar sands is diverting money away from projects that will help meet the global energy demand without damaging the climate. Canada should invest in other low-carbon technology and stop the expansion of tar sands.”

Pictured right: Chief Al Lameman from the Beaver Lake Cree

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Notes to editors:

  • Carbon Capture and Storage in the Alberta Oil Sands - A Dangerous Myth (PDF 2 MB) is published as part of The Co-operative Financial Services (CFS) and WWF-UK Toxic Fuels campaign, which is seeking an end to the emerging global trend of exploiting climate hostile fuels such as Canada’s tar sands. 
  • Current tar sands production in Alberta, Canada, stands at 1.3 million barrels of oil per day. The Canadian Government has granted licenses to produce 7.0 million barrels oil per day. Every major oil company currently has operations in Canada’s tar sands, including Shell and BP.
  • The majority of tar sands production is presently destined for the United States. However, California has already developed legislation that stipulates a Low Carbon Fuels Standard, which would effectively prohibit fuels with lifecycle carbon emissions greater than those resulting from conventional oil by 2020. Other states are considering following suit. In December 2008, the European Union also introduced a low carbon fuel standard, which would exclude these fuels from 2010.
  • If all of Canada’s probable tar sands reserves were exploited, it would result in emissions of 183 Gt CO2, equating to an estimated increase in atmospheric CO2 levels of between 9 and 12 parts per million. The consequences of these additional emissions could be serious given that global atmospheric levels are already past 430ppm CO2e and exceeding 450ppm CO2e significantly increases the risk of 2ºC of warming and runaway climate change.
  • Significant barriers exist to CCS achieving its maximum potential in connection with the oil sands. Not least its expense: The Alberta CCS Development Council, in its final report published March 2009, estimated a cost range of between $60 to $290 per tonne of CO2 captured ($200 to $290 for in-situ tar sands production); which compares poorly with emissions capture from larger, highly concentrated sources, such as coal fired power stations ($60 to $150). It has been estimated