Caution needed with new greenhouse gas emission standards

From the University of Calgary

New model provides lifecycle analysis of ‘well-to-wheel’ oil sands emissions

Policy makers need to be cautious in setting new ‘low-carbon’ standards for greenhouse gas emissions for oil sands-derived fuels as well as fuels from conventional crude oils University of Calgary and University of Toronto researchers say in a paper published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The researchers, using for the first time confidential data from actual oil sands operations, did a ‘well-to-wheel’ lifecycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels produced by Alberta oil sands operations compared with conventional crude oils.

They found that lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions vary widely across both actual surface mining and in situ oil sands operations and conventional crude cases reported in the scientific literature, depending on individual project operating conditions, technology used and other factors. 

“Our study suggests it is not productive to get bogged down in a debate over whether fuels derived from the oil sands emit five per cent or 20 per cent more GHG emissions than fuels produced from conventional oils,” says Joule Bergerson, who led the University of Calgary group for the study, with Heather MacLean who led the University of Toronto group.

“We need to focus instead on finding a transparent, consistent and reliable way of accounting for and reporting well-to-wheel greenhouse gas emissions across the industry and the entire economy.”

The research team developed a new model called GHOST (GreenHouse gas emissions of current Oil Sands Technologies), which accounted for the ‘upstream’ GHG emissions associated with the recovery, extraction, dilution, transportation and upgrading of bitumen. This data was combined with information in the scientific literature on ‘downstream’ emissions from refining, fuel delivery, vehicle refueling and vehicle use, to arrive at the comprehensive lifecycle analysis.

The team’s findings overall supported the widespread perception that the production of transportation fuels from the oil sands is more GHG-intensive than production of fuels from conventional crude oil. However, the findings also show that some lower-emitting oil sands operations actually can outperform higher-emitting conventional crude cases in terms of GHG emissions intensity (the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per barrel of fuel produced).

“The key message here is that there are large, and overlapping, ranges of potential well-to-wheel GHG emissions performance of both oil sands and conventional crudes. Therefore, ranges rather than point estimates should be utilized to represent this performance,” says Bergerson, an assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering in the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy and the Schulich School of Engineering.

Policies such as low-carbon fuel standards and a focus on reducing oil sands operating emissions alone is an initial step but will not be sufficient to achieve meaningful long-term environmental policy goals, the researchers said in the study.

Vehicle operation, say researchers, made up 64 to 74 per cent of the wheel-to-well GHG emissions in the oil sands operations. California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which requires a reduction in the state’s transportation fuels of at least 10 per cent by 2020, “will be complicated by the overlapping ranges of emissions associated with oil sands and conventional crude pathways.”

The wide range of potential emissions intensities for oil sands and conventional crude oils suggests that treating all oil sands, whether surfacing mining or in situ, or all conventional crudes as having the same level of emissions may lead to “unintended consequences,” say researchers.


Alberta Innovates‑Energy and Environment Solutions, Natural Resources Canada, Carbon Management Canada, AUTO 21 NCEs (Ontario Centres of Excellence), and Oil Sands Industry Consortium funded this study.

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25 Responses to Caution needed with new greenhouse gas emission standards

  1. GlynnMhor says:

    Better still would be to come to the realization that the globe has stopped warming of its own accord, and that obsessions over GHGs are a waste of time, effort, energy, and other resources.

  2. tadchem says:

    This kind of “the science is not settled” news will not go down well with the leprechauns of the EPA and the environmental elves.

  3. Interstellar Bill says:

    Applying such an analysis to ethanol has already shown that it actually increases CO2 emissions when compared with a no-ethanol scenario. This is certainly true of wind ‘power’ as well, which is why it never gets thus analyzed. In fact, if solar cells had to use only solar energy to power their mining, manufacturing, shipping, and installation, then they’d probably never get to energy break-even either. All these so-called ‘alternative’ energy ideas are energy SINKS, not sources. It’s analogous to the fact that eating a starved animal is nutritionally negative, worse than not eating at all. Alternative energy is nothing but energy starvation in disguise.

  4. Robin says:

    I have been delving into the pushes to redesign the global economic system around sustainability and it really is premised on a belief that any change in the current balance of the earth’s physical or chemical or biological processes is unacceptable. So under those criteria all fossil fuels are unacceptable and shale even more so. Changes to the Earth equilibrium and balance garner a loud buzzer signalling a resounding “No!” With only a few with the knowledge to respond with “why the hell not!”

    It’s bad natural science but most of the relevant decision makers or students are in no position to know that. With behavioral and social sciences as the new focus, we seem to be headed for a situation where the widely perceived reality will be diametrically opposed to the actual reality.

    Which then creates political pressures to use coercion to shift the actual reality to reflect the newly cultivated beliefs, desires, and values of a majority of voters.

  5. Doug in Seattle says:

    Navel gazing paid for by Candian taxpayers.

  6. Dr. Bob says:

    The whole LCA area is much more complicated than anyone initially envisaged. For crude oil LCA, oil refineries are far more complex than simple transportation fuel production facilities. They produce a myriad of other products that are never considered in a Crude-to-Fuel LCA. Energy and economic allocation of GHG emissions across the entire refinery give grossly different results. They there are hundreds of crudes ranging in density and sulfur content that materially impacts conversion efficiency. Venezuelan Heavy Crude is very nearly as hard to convert to fuel as Canadian oil sands.
    California is grappling with this in their Low Carbon Fuels Standard where they are also considering what impact Very Heavy Crude Oil has on the Carbon Intensity of fuel. Bakersfield crude is considered a very heavy crude, but supplies a lot of California’s crude for refining to fuel.
    The same can be said for biomass derived fuels. No one really “Knows” what the overall GHG emissions are for these processes as there are many unknown parameters such as carbon accumulation in the soil, or the impact of fertilizer run-off to rivers, eutrophication in the Gulf of Mexico, or so many other variables that are either ignored or not considered in a LCA.
    If all the impacts of palm oil were truly understood, we would probably never consider using palm oil for fuel. Yet Neste produces 800,000 MT of palm oil derived Hydroprocessed diesel fuel a year for Europe. Neste claims they use only “green” palm oil. But a simple economic analysis would show that if you create a demand for product from a “green” source, others will migrate to non-green sources of the feed. In this case, many users of palm oil, such as for food products, have to get their feeds from plantations that were cut out of tropical forests. Thus incurring the wrath of NGO’s. And the NGO’s give Neste a free pass as Neste is getting their palm oil from Green sources. But if you eliminated the European demand for Green Diesel, all normal users of palm oil would be able to get their oils from green sources too.

  7. Alan Clark says:

    I’m disappointed that we are still wasting money researching “GHG” reduction strategies when the money would be far, far better spent curing diabetes.

  8. DesertYote says:

    “We need to focus instead on finding a transparent, consistent and reliable way of accounting for and reporting well-to-wheel greenhouse gas emissions across the industry and the entire economy.”


    We need to focus instead on finding costly, convoluted, and meaningless way of increasing the accounting and testing overhead across the industry and the entire economy.

  9. _Jim says:

    Policy makers …

    The brainless; these folks need some ‘skin in the game’, like shop/company owners and inventors vs those that simply act like “leash holders” arbitrarily setting artificial limits based on the slimmest of forethought, science and research but more often heaping amounts of Fear, Uncertainty and Disinformation (FUD).


  10. Ian W says:

    Hey guys – yes you at the University of Calgary – why not do something useful and assess the impact on Canada of the Wheat and other crop grow lines moving South 400-500 miles? Then do the same calculation for Europe, Russia, India and China. It would probably be possible to come up with a simple graphic of how many people will die from the famines per mile southward shift. As a start you will already know that a child dies every 5 seconds from hunger – so what will the rate be with a grow line shifted 300 miles south?

    These deaths are already happening they are not the imaginings of a hypothesis that has been repeatedly falsified.

    This year the USA will have ~20% less corn, ~16% less soya bean, ~8% less wheat. Russia, Australia, China all now expect less corn/wheat than they projected in May. The USA instead of a surplus could be importing these crops by next year. But hey its OK shale gas has lest well to wheel carbon footprint !!

    It would be better if the Earth were actually warming – there would be more food.

  11. highflight56433 says:

    Interesting we have a USA dictator not allowing a certain pipeline construction, and Canadian agencies measuring the vehicle cost expense that could be lowered through the use of pipelines. Am I misinterpreting something here? More roadblocks to oil maybe?

  12. Mike Jonas says:

    Ian W – do you have links for “These deaths are already happening” and “This year the USA will have ~20% less corn, ~16% less soya bean, ~8% less wheat. Russia, Australia, China all now expect less corn/wheat than they projected in May. The USA instead of a surplus could be importing these crops by next year.“?

  13. more soylent green! says:

    If there isn’t a problem with GHG, then the politicians and bureaucrats will have to come up with another reason to take our money and control every aspect of our lives, and that’s a bigger problem than the dogmatic state of climate science.

  14. DesertYote says:

    July 16, 2012 at 11:32 am

    Policy makers …


    When ever you see this phrase, you know that the authors are using Marxist vocabulary. Its a dead give-away like “public engagement”. Its a good sign that whatever contains it would have been written from a Marxist world-view. It’s not proof as a lot of Marxist vocabulary has become quite mainstreamed and is often used by people ignorant of its real meaning.

    And, no, I’m not nuts. I have been studying Marxism for 30 years.

  15. more soylent green! says:

    Mike Jonas says:
    July 16, 2012 at 12:38 pm
    Ian W – do you have links for “These deaths are already happening” and “This year the USA will have ~20% less corn, ~16% less soya bean, ~8% less wheat. Russia, Australia, China all now expect less corn/wheat than they projected in May. The USA instead of a surplus could be importing these crops by next year.“?

    We’re having a terrible heatwave and drought in most of the corn belt and wheat belt. I don’t know about the exact figures, but the estimates given for the corn crop match what was just announced recently. A Google search will find you the source.

  16. Pamela Gray says:

    A far better use of US dollars would be towards improving math performance in each and every student. And I don’t mean memorizing math facts. That’s just a parlor trick. One of the things I am most grateful for is a good math problem solving background and a course in Master’s level statistics that wasn’t required, I didn’t need the course hours or grade, so I decided to audit the class. I also have a couple Master’s level courses under my belt in research design and critique. High school students could have easily handled these classes. In fact, before they get to the Ivory Tower, every high school student should be required to take a course in advanced data analysis (beyond rounding, and mean, median, and mode) as well as in research critique. Snake oil loses its glitter when you know a little math. And it sounds like this piece of research is one of those policy kinds of research that we had better scrutinize. Wolf in sheep’s clothing and all that.

  17. Pamela Gray says:

    Ian, you are spot on with grow areas shifting South, as they always do in La Nina conditions and a cold PDO. La Nina means cold and hot. Cold in the Winter, hot and dry in the summer. Bottom line, El Nino brings water to the corn belt. La Nina brings the hot dry Sun. We are shifting to El Nino, maybe, but not in time to water the parched corn belt. Nothing whatsoever to do with CO2.

  18. David L. Hagen says:

    See U Calgary news at: Debate waste of energy, UToday HomeJuly 13, 2012. The original article is at:

    Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Current Oil Sands Technologies: Surface Mining and In Situ Applications, Joule A. Bergerson, Oyeshola Kofoworola, Alex D. Charpentier, Sylvia Sleep, and Heather L. MacLean, Environ. Sci. Technol., Article ASAP, DOI: 10.1021/es300718h, Publication Date (Web): June 5, 2012

    Life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with two major recovery and extraction processes currently utilized in Alberta’s oil sands, surface mining and in situ, are quantified. Process modules are developed and integrated into a life cycle model-GHOST (GreenHouse gas emissions of current Oil Sands Technologies) developed in prior work. Recovery and extraction of bitumen through surface mining and in situ processes result in 3–9 and 9–16 g CO2eq/MJ bitumen, respectively; upgrading emissions are an additional 6–17 g CO2eq/MJ synthetic crude oil (SCO) (all results are on a HHV basis). Although a high degree of variability exists in well-to-wheel emissions due to differences in technologies employed, operating conditions, and product characteristics, the surface mining dilbit and the in situ SCO pathways have the lowest and highest emissions, 88 and 120 g CO2eq/MJ reformulated gasoline. Through the use of improved data obtained from operating oil sands projects, we present ranges of emissions that overlap with emissions in literature for conventional crude oil. An increased focus is recommended in policy discussions on understanding interproject variability of emissions of both oil sands and conventional crudes, as this has not been adequately represented in previous studies.

  19. Gail Combs says:

    Here is the USDA July 2012 Crop Production Report in billions of bushels (released July 11, 2012, 7:30 a.m. CST) – released July 11, 2012 And yes the estimated yields have been revised down. However in May the USDA projects record breaking corn crop in 2012

    From the world view as of July 11 2012

    USDA: World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates

    WHEAT: …Total U.S. wheat use for 2012/13 is projected 35 million bushels higher….Ending stocks for 2012/13 are projected 30 million bushels lower. The projected range for the 2012/13 season average farm price is raised 60 cents on both ends to $6.20 to $7.40 per bushel, supported by sharply higher corn and soybean prices.< This compares with the record $7.24 per bushel reported for 2011/12. Global wheat supplies for 2012/13 are reduced 5.1 million tons with lower world production more than offsetting a 1.6-million-ton increase in beginning stocks. World production is lowered 6.7 million tons with reductions for Russia, Kazakhstan, and China accounting for most of the reduction…..

    COARSE GRAINS: U.S. feed grain supplies for 2012/13 are projected sharply lower with corn production prospects reduced 1.8 billion bushels from last month. The projected U.S. corn yield is lowered 20 bushels per acre to 146 bushels reflecting the rapid decline in crop conditions since early June and the latest weather data. Persistent and extreme June dryness across the central and eastern Corn Belt and extreme late June and early July heat from the central Plains to the Ohio River Valley have substantially lowered yield prospects across most of the major growing regions…. Food, seed, and industrial use is also projected lower, down 105 million bushels, mostly reflecting a 100-million-bushel reduction in corn used to produce ethanol. Exports are projected 300 million bushels lower as tight supplies, higher prices, and strong competition from South American exporters limit U.S. shipments. A 52-million-bushel increase in beginning stocks and a 15-million-bushel increase in imports offset only a small portion of the expected reduction in this year’s crop. Ending stocks for 2012/13 are projected at 1.2 billion bushels, down 698 million from last month’s projection….

    The report continues for 40 pages.

  20. Ian W says:

    It makes depressing reading and each time I look at the new figures they are worse. I am traveling at the moment. But here are some references to start with:

    Global Hunger
    “The world is facing a hunger crisis unlike anything it has seen in more than 50 years.
    925 million people are hungry.
    Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes. That’s one child every five seconds.
    There were 1.4 billion people in extreme poverty in 2005. The World Bank estimates that the spike in global food prices in 2008, followed by the global economic recession in 2009 and 2010 has pushed between 100-150 million people into poverty

    So we are now looking at another spike in global food prices. (from the previous references).

    And academics fight for huge million dollar grants to come up with the latest climate science ‘report’ for AR5 while these people are dying?

    And we watch money that could be spent on food production being thrown down ‘green energy’ black holes by politicians. UK is spending £18 billion on ‘green energy such as windfarms. We see ‘green industry’ (sic) clearing fertile African farmland burning down the villages and planting eucalyptus that can never be grubbed out and which is inedible as ‘carbon offset’. Huge amounts of land are set aside to grow food crops that are mandated to be made into inefficient ‘bio’fuel.

    If the Russians and others are right about cooling, even if it is only to the level of the 1960s – 70s we are at the start of a descent into major famine – this is not an academic argument. And the 1st world is actually more vulnerable than the third world with supermarkets holding at most only 3 days food supply.

    If people are not worried they should be.

  21. TomRude says:

    ISEEE retired oilmen buying their carbon indulgences…

  22. Chuck Nolan says:

    “We need to focus instead on finding a transparent, consistent and reliable way of accounting for and reporting well-to-wheel greenhouse gas emissions across the industry and the entire economy.”
    Why on earth do we need to do this?
    We need to stop Big Brother’s attempt to control CO2.
    And stop you from wasting taxpayer money.

  23. Bill Tuttle says:

    DesertYote says:
    July 16, 2012 at 1:53 pm
    @ _Jim (July 16, 2012 at 11:32 am) “Policy makers …”
    When ever you see this phrase, you know that the authors are using Marxist vocabulary. Its a dead give-away like “public engagement”. Its a good sign that whatever contains it would have been written from a Marxist world-view. It’s not proof as a lot of Marxist vocabulary has become quite mainstreamed and is often used by people ignorant of its real meaning.

    Radical lefties in the 1930s began to term themselves “progressive” in order to make their agenda sound less threatening to the general public. Georgy Malenkov used “progressives” to describe those useful idiots who considered the USSR their spiritual homeland.

    Lenin coined the term “politically correct.” He stated that it was acceptable to execute children under the age of six without a trial “if the parents are not politically correct.” Even Stalin balked at that one — when he was in charge, all children, regardless of age, received a trial before they were executed.

  24. Mike Jonas says:

    Ian W (and others) – thx for the links. I’m travelling too, but will work through them. A possible cross-check would be to see what happened to world food supply and prices in the 60′s and 70′s.

  25. Ian W says:

    If anyone is still here –
    Echoing the views of other agriculture industry analysts, Vilsack said Wednesday that as the drought batters America’s crop supply, prices at the checkout line could eventually rise as a result. But that won’t happen yet, he said, suggesting that any shopkeepers who dramatically raise prices now are just trying to scam customers.
    “The important thing right now is for consumers to be aware,” Vilsack said. ”

    Read more:

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