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Greenhouse gas intensity in oilsands dropped 20 percent over past decade, analysis shows

Cenovus Christina Lake SAGD project
SAGD projects like Cenovus' Christina Lake facility are helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

New research by the IHS Markit Canadian Oil Sands Dialogue shows that the combined greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity of Canadian oil sands projects fell 20 percent from 2009 levels.

The new analysis, using the most recent available data, shows trends remaining in line with previous IHS Markit projections that oil sands GHG intensity will decline by at least 16 to 23 percent by 2030 (to a level 30 percent below 2009).

"The latest data show that the greenhouse gas intensity of Canadian oil sands going down further, continuing a decade-long trend," said Kevin Birn, vice president, North American crude oil markets, IHS Markit. "Ongoing efficiencies and ramping-up of new, less-intensive forms of extraction will support additional reductions though the next decade." 

The declining emissions intensity will slow the pace of absolute emissions growth in Canada, where the government has imposed a 100-megaton limit on oil sands emissions. IHS Markit estimates that oil sands are about two-thirds to the cap, about 66 megatons, in 2018 (most recent year data is available).

There continues to be a wide variability in the range of emissions for different oil sands projects, spanning a range of 160 kg carbon dioxide per barrel in 2018. This means that the least GHG-intensive operation (40 kgCO2 e/bbl) was more than four times less than the most intensive (201 kgCO2 e/bbl). 

This extreme variability means that using the weighted average to evaluate any one oil sands project would be a misrepresentation.

"When it comes to the greenhouse gas intensity of oil sands projects, there is no one-size-fits-all. Making judgements based on an average will give you the wrong answer as it will not reflect any one operation's actual level of emissions. This is important and it goes beyond just the oil sands. We are finding similar variability in other plays globally," Birn said.

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