Jan. 12, 2021

Schulich researcher says transparency is key in estimating oil sands emissions

New study provides unheralded access to emissions data at three Alberta sites

A new study estimating greenhouse gas emissions at three of Alberta’s oil sands operations shows that transparency is key to reducing discrepancies and making sure new green technologies are worth the investment.

The study, published in late November, led by researchers from the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary, provided unprecedented access to internal data for Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s Horizon project, Imperial Oil Ltd.’s Kearl site and MEG Energy Corp.’s Christina Lake facility.

The study identified a decline in greenhouse gas emissions, but the authors say context is important.

“Trying to generalize these results and cherry-pick and spin has always been a problem with life cycle emission results, particularly in the transportation fuel area,” Dr. Joule Bergerson, PhD, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering told The Globe and Mail. “The reality is that every one of these projects is very different.”

Access Granted

When they started their research, Bergerson and her co-authors wanted to find out how accurately open-source data can estimate emissions from oil sands projects and emerging technologies.

They worked with the companies to determine that model estimates were actually within one and four per cent of actual emissions..

They also found current extraction/processing emissions at the three sites were 14 to 35 per cent lower than previous studies had found, while new technologies could bring it down another 14 to 19 per cent.

Bergerson told the Globe it’s critical to work together with industry, as the reductions are due to regional inputs.

“They have insights about the on-the-ground challenges and operating details that you can’t capture in public documents,” Bergerson said.

Better Decisions for the Future

While the study helps provide more insight into what is happening in some of Alberta’s oil sands projects, it could also help shape decision-making in the future.

“Better information allows you to make better decisions,” Emissions Reduction Alberta chief executive Steve MacDonald said. “We’re in the investment game and the more we can understand where the baselines are – where the opportunities are – with credible third-party-validated evidence, the better our portfolio could be directed.”

The research shows not only a more accurate estimation of Alberta’s emissions, but also a method that could be used globally to make sure the measurement of all crude extraction is fair and equal. In turn, Bergerson believes publishing more data could help boost credibility.

“Achieving net-zero is one thing, but convincing stakeholders that you have actually achieved net-zero is really important,” Bergerson said. “This is really important to continue developing tools like this to be able to show that transparently.”