While Americans are focused on the debate over expanded oil drilling, which might eventually add up to a million barrels per day of incremental oil production, a much larger expansion is underway north of the border, tapping Canada's oil sands reserves. Today's Financial Times (subscription required for full access) reports that environmentalists and socially-responsible investment funds are meeting today with Shell and BP, concerning the environmental and financial risks of the greenhouse gas emissions inherent in oil sands production. This has important implications for future oil supplies, particularly with oil prices falling to a level that might threaten further investment in oil sands, even without considering the cost of mitigating or offsetting the sector's CO2 emissions.
Worries about the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from oil sands operations are not new. Ten years ago my former company approached one of the large Canadian producers about employing Texaco's (now GE's) gasification technology to turn byproduct petroleum coke into gas to fuel the oil sands extraction process, incidentally creating an option for the CO2 to be sequestered in depleted oil and gas reservoirs. Neither the economics nor the consensus for action on climate change was sufficient to move ahead, at the time. But with Canada imposing stricter rules for industrial sources of CO2, and with a new global agreement on climate change in prospect at the end of 2009, that perspective may be shifting.
According to the FT, the groups in today's meeting in London are focused on the financial risks associated with emissions from oil sands--emissions that are several times larger than those from conventional oil production. Some are calling for a moratorium on new oil sands and oil shale projects. If oil were still over $120/bbl, that argument would carry little weight. Even if the most extreme estimate provided by Greenpeace were correct, suggesting that oil sands extraction emits 100kg more CO2 per barrel than conventional oil production, that would equate to under $4/bbl of extra cost, based on the price of 2012 emissions credits on the European Climate Exchange at current exchange rates.
Two factors render that figure more significant than it might appear. Falling oil prices are pushing new oil sands projects close to their breakeven point, according to Total, hampering the industry's ability to mitigate emissions. At the same time, the sheer magnitude of the oil sands expansion makes these emissions too large to ignore. The latest forecast from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers indicates that oil sands output should increase from 1.2 million barrels per day (MBD) last year to 2.8 MBD in 2015 and 3.5 MBD in 2020. Without making expensive changes in operations to reduce emissions and capture and store CO2, or buying emissions offsets, oil sands operations could increase Canada's current GHG emissions by as much as 10%. As a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, the Canadian government cannot just look the other way, while these emissions mount.
There are many areas in which the goal of improving energy security aligns with reducing GHG emissions, including improved efficiency and more use of renewable energy. But oil sands--and by extension oil shale--represents a clear conflict between our desire to reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the need to halt the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And with oil nearing $90/bbl, a $4 increase in production costs to manage CO2 could stall new development and reduce future oil output by enough to tip the global supply and demand balance even further in favor of OPEC and Russia. Unless the next administration is willing to sit down with our NAFTA partners to discuss a comprehensive North American approach to both energy and emissions, this matter will ultimately be settled in Ottowa, where neither the US Congress nor President can offer more than friendly advice.