Canadian Oil Sands: Life-Cycle Assessments of Greenhouse Gas Emissions *

By Lattanzio, Richard K. | Current Politics and Economics of the United States, Canada and Mexico, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Canadian Oil Sands: Life-Cycle Assessments of Greenhouse Gas Emissions *


Lattanzio, Richard K., Current Politics and Economics of the United States, Canada and Mexico


Selected Findings from the Primary Published Studies

CRS surveyed the published literature, including the U.S. State Department-commissioned study for the Keystone XL pipeline project in both the 2011 Final Environmental Impact Statement and the 2014 Final Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement. The primary literature reveals the following:

· Canadian oil sands crudes are generally more GHG emission-intensive than other crudes they may displace in U.S. refineries, and emit an estimated 17% more GHGs on a life-cycle basis than the average barrel of crude oil refined in the United States;

· compared to selected imports, Well-to-Wheels GHG emissions for Canadian oil sands crudes range from 9% to 19% more emission-intensive than Middle Eastern Sour, 5% to 13% more emission-intensive than Mexican Maya, and 2% to 18% more emission-intensive than various Venezuelan crudes;

· compared to selected energy- and resource-intensive crudes, Well-to-Wheels GHG emissions for Canadian oil sands crudes are within range of heavier crudes such as Venezuelan Bachaquero and Californian Kern River, as well as lighter crudes that are produced from operations that flare associated gas (e.g., Nigerian Bonny Light);

· discounting the final consumption phase of the life-cycle assessment (which can contribute up to 70%-80% of Well-to-Wheels emissions), Well-to-Tank (i.e., "production") GHG emissions for Canadian oil sands crudes are 9%-102% higher than for selected imports;

· the estimated effect of the Keystone XL pipeline on global GHG emissions remains uncertain, as some speculate that its construction would encourage an expansion of oil sands investment and development, while others suggest that the project would not substantially influence either the rate or magnitude of oil extraction activities in Canada or the overall volume of crude oil transported to and refined in the United States.

Scope and Purpose of This Report

Congressional interest in the GHG emissions attributable to Canadian oil sands crudes has encompassed both a broad understanding of the resource as well as a specific assessment of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. This report discusses the basic methodology of life-cycle assessments and compares several of the publicly available studies of GHG emissions data for Canadian oil sands crudes against each other and against those of other global reference crudes. For a detailed analysis of the GHG emissions attributable to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and the findings from the State Department's Final Environmental Impact Statement, see CRS Report R43415, Keystone XL: Greenhouse Gas Emissions Assessments in the Final Environmental Impact Statement, by Richard K. Lattanzio.

INTRODUCTION

Recent congressional interest in U.S. energy policy has focused in part on ways through which the United States could secure more economical and reliable petroleum resources both domestically and internationally. Many forecasters identify petroleum products refined from Canadian oil sands1 as one possible solution. Canadian oil sands account for about 56% of Canada's total crude oil production, and that number is expected to rise from its current level of 1.8 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2012 to 5.2 mbd by 2030.2 Further, the infrastructure to produce, upgrade, refine, and transport the resource from Canadian oil sands reserves to the United States is in place, and additional infrastructure projects-such as the Keystone XL pipeline-have been proposed.3 Increased production from Canadian oil sands, however, is not without controversy, as many have expressed concern over the potential environmental impacts. These impacts may include increased water and natural gas use, disturbance of mined land, effects on wildlife and water quality, trans-boundary air pollution, and emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) during extraction and processing.4

A number of key studies in recent literature have expressed findings that GHG emissions per unit of energy produced from Canadian oil sands crudes are higher than those of other crudes imported, refined, and consumed in the United States. …

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