STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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New Energy Bill Marred by Tar Sands

Posted by mhudema on February 6, 2008

The New York Times ran a story yesterday on whether the trend towards greener energy will hold or fade away. Fortunately for the planet, the story concluded that this trend is here to stay. But also featured in this story was another important story – a saga of  Beauty and the Beast and what really happens when the price of oil goes up.

Clifford Krauss of the New York Times correctly points out that renewable spending, while up significantly, is in a race with so-called “unconventional fuels” – synthetic fuels like Canadian tar sands, liquid coal, and oil shale – for our energy future. Huge investments are being made to scrape the bottom of the barrel for oil. Instead of moving forwards to develop energies for our future, the large oil companies are putting their money into developing the dirty, polluting fuels of our past.

While this saga makes for good rhetoric for us environmentalists, we wanted to back it up with facts. So we took a hard look at the recently enacted Energy Bill signed into law in December that, among other features, included the first increase in CAFÉ standards – fuel economy standards – in over thirty years. The law requires cars and light trucks to meet a 35 mile per gallon fleetwide average by 2020 and for medium and heavy duty vehicles to make “maximum feasible” and “cost effective” improvements. It also requires that 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels be available on an annual basis by the same year.

Together, these improvements to CAFÉ, medium and heavy duty vehicles (M&HDV) and renewable fuels (RFS) yield savings of 260 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in the year 2020 or a cumulative savings of 1,105 million metric tons between 2011, when the fuel economy requirements start taking effect, and 2020.  NRDC heralded the passage of the new law, saying that it represents real progress in achieving cleaner cars, fuels, and appliances.

What our analysis found is that, at its projected rate of expansion, tar sands oil production will take away 13-19% – on an annual basis – of the greenhouse gas reductions of the new CAFÉ, M&HDV, and RFS requirements by 2020.  The ding is even greater when we looked at the cumulative impact.  The analysis shows that tar sands production will offset between 24-32% of these requirements.   The range reflects optimistic to pessimistic assumptions about greenhouse gas intensity of tar sands oil production.

How did we do this analysis?  We started by looking at when the additional benefits of the Energy Bill would come into play. The Energy Bill CAFÉ requirements gradually ramp up between 2011 and 2020 to achieve a fleetwide average of 35 miles per gallon. We also looked at the impact on medium and heavy duty vehicles (HDV) using ACEEE assumptions about what savings the law’s “maximum feasible” and “cost effective” language might yield.[1] Finally, we looked at projected greenhouse gas savings from the ramped up renewable fuel standard (RFS) in the law.  Then we looked at the incremental tar sands emissions in 2011 onward– the year that the Energy Bill savings start occurring.

Based on projections by the Pembina Institute of Alberta, we compared those projected emissions to full life cycle greenhouse gas reductions per gallon of gasoline equivalent avoided.  We made sure we looked only at the additional emissions from tar sands production as compared with conventional oil production (tar sands extraction produces three times the carbon dioxide emissions).  The Pembina data for tar sands production is derived from data using forecasted annual greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands projects that have been announced to date – a production level of 4.8 million barrels per day in 2020 and an increase over conventional oil production of 34 and 49 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

What was most surprising about this analysis is how big a role tar sands oil production will play in our moving forward to reduce greenhouse gases in North America. Those of us following this issue know that Canada is having trouble meeting its Kyoto Protocol requirements, or its international treaty obligations, to reduce its greenhouse gases because of the tar sands.  But the big surprise was how much the tar sands may make it difficult for us collectively as North America to meet our goals.

The other surprising take-away is the contrast between the decades long struggle by the U.S. environmental movement to strengthen the CAFÉ standards – one of the most noteworthy battles in environmental rule-making – and fuel efficiency in our country and North America more generally, and the relative obscurity of the tar sands. How can Canadian tar sands oil production – production that most Americans south of the border know nothing about – potentially take such a big bite out of our new CAFÉ standards?  It makes me reflect on how important it is to elevate the issue of dirty fuels in North America. Our analysis looked only at tar sands, which are currently in production at 1.2 million barrels per day. But we should also look at the impact that liquid coal and oil shale production could have on the other 70% of our CAFÉ and renewables gains.  What is clear to me is that we have a long road ahead to really secure the gains made by the passage of the historic Energy Bill of 2007 and to make the deeper cuts that are required of us as North Americans.


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